SEOUL — South Korea on Monday said it will compensate laborers who were forced to work for Japanese companies during colonization in the first half of the 20th century, a landmark move toward resolving a dispute that has bedeviled relations between the United States’ closest allies in Asia for years.
The decision drew immediate backlash from some plaintiffs and opposition party leaders, underscoring the politically fraught environment surrounding claims stemming from Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and the historical issues that are deeply ingrained in the identities of both countries.
It reflects South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s efforts to improve the country’s tattered relationship with Japan in hopes that stronger diplomatic and security cooperation among the United States, Japan and South Korea might counter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and China’s military buildup.
With Monday’s announcement, South Korea essentially has placed the ball in Japan’s court. It is unclear how Tokyo plans to respond, but Japanese leaders have reacted positively to recent efforts to mend bilateral ties. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Monday that Japan hopes “this will be an opportunity that will lead to strengthening Japan-Korea relations moving forward.”
President Biden also welcomed the announcement, saying it marks “a groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies.”
“When fully realized, their steps will help us to uphold and advance our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said in a statement.
The forced-labor issue has been a contentious one that has plagued relations between the countries. In 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel — to compensate South Koreans who were forced to work for them during World War II, often in brutal conditions.
The 2018 rulings led to a diplomatic rift with Japan. The courts also ordered the seizure of assets held by the Japanese companies in Seoul, which Tokyo called unlawful.
In 2019, Japan removed South Korea from a “white list” of preferential trading partners and imposed restrictions on exports of key high-tech materials to South Korea, flaring trade tensions. The diplomatic spat spilled over into other areas, including a military intelligence-sharing agreement.
Japan maintains that the forced-labor issue was settled in 1965, when the two countries restored diplomatic relations through a treaty and Japan paid $500 million in grants and loans to South Korea to settle “completely and finally” claims stemming from its occupation of the peninsula.
South Korea and Japan plan to hold their first meeting on the export control dispute since March 2020, the Japanese government said Monday.
The South Korean government plans to seek donations for its compensation fund from companies that benefited from those grants, such as steelmaker Posco. By creating this fund, the South Korean government is offering a way for the victims to be compensated, while freeing up the Japanese companies from making direct payments to the victims.
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said Monday that Seoul is seeking a breakthrough so that the two countries can focus on geopolitical and strategic challenges in the region. Seoul hopes Japanese companies will voluntarily contribute to the fund for victims, he added, and that Japan will offer a “comprehensive apology.”
“I hope that this is a window of opportunity to forge a new path in history. And I think this is our last chance,” Park said during a news conference Monday.
Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries declined to comment on the announcement.
Resolving the forced-labor issue is an important step toward creating momentum to address other issues that have made it difficult for the two countries to cooperate on security challenges facing the region, said Yasuyo Sakata, an international relations professor at the Kanda University of International Studies in Japan who specializes in U.S.-South Korea-Japan relations.
“The Yoon government made a difficult decision, but for the future of Japan-Korea bilateral relations, as well as the strategic context we’re in right now, they know we have to cooperate together, and Japan knows that, too,” Sakata said. “Japan needs to show more sincerity, and I think Japan has the power to do so.”
Diplomats from the United States, Japan and South Korea have met more than 40 times in the past 12 months in an effort to normalize routine conversations and trips after many years of strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo, U.S. Ambassador Rahm Emanuel said Monday in a briefing to reporters.
The three countries have increased teamwork on a range of defense and economic security matters, including decreasing supply chain dependence on China and holding joint military drills in response to North Korea’s ballistic missile tests.
Emanuel said improving Tokyo-Seoul relations is a key part of a “strategic realignment” between the United States and like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region, designed to make North Korea and China feel the need to “sleep with one eye open.”
But Daniel Sneider, a lecturer in East Asian studies at Stanford University and an expert in Japan-Korea relations, called Monday’s announcement a “very politically fragile compromise.”
“The responsibility for making this work lies entirely with Japan. The Koreans have gone as far as they can go — well beyond as far as they can go,” Sneider said.
Since Yoon took office in May, he has made repeated overtures to Japan. Most recently, he said last week in a speech marking South Korea’s independence movement to liberate from Japan, “Japan has transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us.”
When he held the post of foreign minister in 2015, Kishida negotiated a landmark agreement with South Korea to resolve compensation for Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation. With Kishida at the helm, South Koreans perceived that Japan would be more amenable to negotiating a way out of the current stalemate.
But Kishida continues to face plummeting ratings at home, which made rapprochement with South Korea an even more difficult political decision than usual. Yoon, a conservative, has just recently found stable footing in his polls, but he faces a National Assembly controlled by the main opposition Democratic Party.
With local elections coming up in Japan in April and a legislative election in South Korea in 2024, experts had called for both leaders to take advantage of the window that may be the least politically fraught in both countries.
But plaintiffs and critics are already blaming Yoon for rushing a legal resolution for geopolitical gain.
“Is President Yoon Suk Yeol Korean or Japanese? Does he live for Japan or for us Korean people?” said Yang Geum-deok, who worked at a Mitsubishi aircraft factory under harsh conditions as a teenage girl.
Yang refused to accept the compensation under the new plan, calling it a “beggarly” offer: “I cannot wrap my head around it. In my 95 years of life, I have never faced this sort of logic.”