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Can the Wartime Labor Mobilization Issue Be Resolved for Good? 

The Yoon government is seeking a resolution of the wartime labor issue but has yet to convince South Korean lawsuit parties who want money, or a wary Japan.



wartime labor
South Korea's National Assembly holds an open debate. (Credit: National Assembly TV @NATV_korea) 

On January 12, the South Korean National Assembly hosted the fourth and last public debate on settling the issue of wartime labor mobilization of Koreans under Japanese colonial rule.

The open discussions were Seoul's attempt to execute a 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling. That ruling favored the plaintiffs (alleged victims) who sought compensation from Nippon Steel, a Japanese steel making firm. The court upheld the earlier High Court's decision ordering the Japanese company to pay ₩100 million KRW ($88,000 USD) to each of the four plaintiffs. 

In another case in 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court reached a comparable ruling against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Tokyo, however, refused to carry out these sentences. It cited the Japan-Korea Treaty on Basic Relations and Settlement of Problems Regarding Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation signed in 1965. Under those agreements, the Japanese government views that all claims related to colonial era disputes with the Republic of Korea and its nationals "completely and finally" settled.

During the debate, the Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan, a state-run victim's advocacy group, and South Korean officials tacitly acquiesced to a "third-party" settlement. This option would allow the South Korean government and (third party) corporations to compensate the alleged victims via the foundation on behalf of the defendant. 

Senior government officials hinted that the compensation package might extend to the 67 pending lawsuits on similar wartime labor cases. 

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Alleged victims and their family protest and cause occasional disruptions. (Credit: SBS News, snapshot)

Unsettling Assessment of the Wartime Labor Deal

Some believe the third-party settlement provides maximum leeway for Seoul to take on the burden without antagonizing relations with Japan. The decision clearly echoes President Yoon Suk-yeol's commitment to resolving historical quarrels vis-a-vis Japan. He wants to revitalize ties with South Korea's traditional allies. 

Likewise, it is a noticeable departure from the "anti-Japan" frenzy propagated under the former Moon Jae In administration. 

Nevertheless, the third-party option bodes ill for the South Korean public and the opposition Democratic Party. More crucially, the plaintiffs vehemently oppose it. 

The plaintiffs continue to demand monetary reparations and apologies from Tokyo and the Japanese companies. They argue the recent development would exempt Japan from its alleged criminal liability.   

This news is profoundly unsettling for several reasons. But chiefly, the plaintiff's demands are predicated on a highly partisan and historically erroneous ruling rendered by the courts in South Korea. 

wartime labor
Victim's advocacy group demands reparations from Japan and Japanese firms in front of the National Assembly building. (Credit: Yonhap News, snapshot)

The South Korean Supreme Court unilaterally declared in 2018 that Japan's occupation of the Peninsula (1910-45) was "illegal." It's decision said that the wartime forced mobilization of Koreans constituted "crimes against humanity." Thus, despite the international treaty signed in 1965, which effectively recompensed the alleged Korean victims, the ruling means that court-ordered individual reparations remain valid in South Korea. 

Another Settlement of the Wartime Labor Issue?

In essence, by piggybacking on the "anti-Japanese" sentiment at the time, the Court haphazardly upheld a historically inaccurate and narrowly supported legal theory. Moreover, it did so merely to penalize Japan. (Even some Korean scholars argue this.) With such precedent at hand, there's no guarantee that the alleged victims won't seek further litigation even after being compensated by a third party. 

In fact, the third-party settlement is likely to attract hundreds of thousands of similar lawsuits. That is over and above the pending 67 cases. The reparation fee, of course, will be astronomical.     

Several experts forewarned of this situation early on. Tsutomu Nishioka, a professor at Reitaku University is one of them. He is the author of The Fabricated Wartime Labor Issue (Soshisha, 2019, in Japanese). 


"The third-party settlement is only viable while conservative President Yoon is in office. … At any rate, Tokyo needs to stay vigilant for any sudden shift in South Korea's policies," Nishioka said in an interview with JAPAN Forward

"If Japan is compelled to share the financial burden at any point in the future, it would mean that we've conceded to the South Korean court's farcical ruling. This is genuinely problematic and should be avoided at all costs," Professor Nishioka added.

wartime labor
Tsutomu Nishioka is an East Asian specialist who has published numerous books and journals on the forced mobilization issue. (Credit: MediaWatch, 2020)

Searching for Firms to Subsidize the Deal

Recent reports suggest that the South Korean victim's advocacy group has begun reaching out to firms willing to subsidize the deal. 

While this signals a positive first step, there's a long road ahead in persuading the alleged victims and their families. And make no mistake, the South Korean government and its people must bear the responsibility. 


Author: Kenji Yoshida

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