Seoul to end dispute with Tokyo

Wartime 'forced labor' roils relations between South Korea and Japan

  • Part of a march in Seoul against the compensation plan. A.B

  • Lee Jae-myung accused the South Korean government of treating victims of forced labor as if they were a stumbling block to improved relations. EPA.


Korean Yang Geum Duke was a child in the forties of the last century, and she dreamed of being a teacher. When her professor suggested she study in Japan, the country's colonial ruler at the time, she enthusiastically agreed. When she was just 13 years old, she prepared the necessary documents and left her home in South Jeolla province. She was immediately sent not to the promised school in Japan, but to an aircraft factory run by Japanese giant Mitsubishi. "I worked almost to death and was never paid," she recalls. Her last hope, she says, is that "the perpetrators will offer a sincere apology before I die."

On March 6, the government of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol announced a new compensation fund for victims of forced labor in Japan during wartime or their surviving relatives. Details on whether Mitsubishi or any Japanese company will pay these compensations are unclear. Still, Yoon hopes this will end a dispute that for decades has poisoned relations between the two countries, even as they draw closer to U.S. pressure and concerns about China and North Korea. US President Joe Biden hailed the announcement as "a groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership".

This follows a 2018 ruling by South Korea's Supreme Court that two Japanese companies, Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, must compensate South Koreans forced to work in their factories or their remaining family members. The Japanese government objected to this decision, arguing that the issue had been settled through a treaty between the two countries in 1965. A cold confrontation ensued, raising the possibility that Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi would have their South Korean assets seized by the court. Since Yoon took office in May, officials in Seoul and Tokyo have been engaged in a concerted and behind-the-scenes effort to fix things.

The compensation fund will mostly be funded by the South Korean government. South Korean companies that received funds under the 1965 treaty (which included $800 million in grants and low-interest loans to South Korea) will be encouraged, but will not be forced to contribute. Japanese companies may do so on a voluntary basis. Meanwhile, instead of issuing a new apology desired by Yang Geum Duke and many South Koreans, Japan will reissue its "deep remorse and sincere apology" it made in 1998 for the "immense damage and suffering caused by Japan's colonial occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945."

The wording of the apology reflects the extent to which Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is not interested in making concessions. He fears offending his opposition Liberal Democratic Party's approach to any new apology. Kishida hailed the compensation fund as a "return to a healthy relationship." Within hours, Japan's Commerce Ministry announced bilateral talks on lifting controls, in place since 2019, on exports of materials for semiconductor manufacturing to South Korea. South Korea said it would suspend its related complaint to the WTO. Yun may soon receive an invitation for an official visit to Japan. He may also be welcomed as a guest at the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima in May.

The South Korean leader has yet to market his solution domestically. His push for better bilateral relations relies on appealing to South Koreans to weigh the benefits of cooperation with Japan with their concerns about past abuses. In a speech on March 1, the day to mark the anniversary of Korea's independence, Yoon said Japan had transformed itself from "a military aggressor from the past to a partner who shares the same universal values." But it may fail to satisfy victims of forced labor or its political opponents.

Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer representing 15 plaintiffs in connection with Nippon Steel's use of forced labor, says that for the fund to function as hoped, the plaintiffs will have to drop their claim for compensation from the Japanese company. He adds that some of them will insist that the company itself must apologize and pay the price, explaining, "How will we be able to accept this when there is not a single apology and not a single yen?"

Most South Koreans want better relations with Japan. However, a recent poll indicates that 64% consider another apology from Japan, and an investigation into its past wrongdoing, prerequisites. Yun's opponents will fuel that sentiment. Opposition party leader Lee Jae-myung accused the government of "treating victims of forced labour as if they were a stumbling block to improved relations". The same charge helped undo a "final and irreversible solution" to the issue of Korean women forced into sexual slavery, in wartime by Japan, negotiated by the two countries in 2015.

Protesters against the deal gathered on March 6 outside Seoul City Hall. The candlelit signs criticized the South Korean leader's "humiliating pro-Japanese diplomacy" and America's support. The more important question is whether Yun did more to absorb the anger or pour oil on the fire?

• Since Yoon took power in May, officials in Seoul and Tokyo have been engaged in a determined and behind-the-scenes effort to fix things.

• 64% of Koreans consider another apology from Japan and an investigation into its past wrongdoing to be prerequisites.