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Latest Wartime Labor Debate by South Korean Academics Shows Only the Truth Will Mend Ties

"The best solution to resolving historical disputes is by promoting the facts" — Hwang Uiwon, editor-in-chief of MediaWatch, at the wartime labor history forum.



Mainstream Korean media denounces Sado Mines as site of forced labor. (© MBC News)

On May 21, conservative civic groups in South Korea hosted a public forum on the wartime labor mobilization issue. This historical dispute remains one of Japan and South Korea's most contentious diplomatic quarrels to this day. 

Alleged victims in South Korea claim the Japanese forcibly conscripted them during the colonial era. Many contend they were oppressed, paid less, and positioned in harsher work conditions than mainland laborers. The Japanese government, however, has invariably countered these claims.

At the conference, the emphasis was given to examining the historical and legal nature of the mobilization issue. Speakers also discussed Japan's struggles in registering the Sado gold mines as a UNESCO world heritage. 

Lew Seok-choon, sociologist and retired professor of Yonsei University, delivered the opening remark. In it, Lew vehemently criticized South Korea's anti-Japan history education and how it has run amok. While pointing out numerous lies propagated by anti-Japan educators, Lew noted that the forced labor issue seems less known to the Korean public.

Debunking the Forced Labor Myth 

Lee Wooyoun, an economic historian noted for co-authoring the best-seller Anti-Japan Tribalism, cracked the myths surrounding the forced labor narrative. He argued that most Koreans who left their home to work in Japan weren't coerced but did so voluntarily or via recruitment. 

"Numerous Chosun laborers went to Japan from 1939 onwards, but the Japanese government enforced conscription law only between September 1944 to April 1945. Around 1.68 million [more than twice the conscripted population] Koreans left for Japan regardless of the mandatory mobilization," Lee explained.

Lee Wooyoun delivering his presentation. Lee is noted for publishing papers disproving outstanding wage discrimination against Chosun laborers. (© Hwang Uiwon)

Through various historical records, Lee showed that despite what many Koreans believe, forced labor was inconceivable. "Township officers recruited Korean workers willing to relocate to Japan with the cooperation of landlords or village heads," Lee said.

"There were no mobilization decrees directed at Chosun people before September 1944. And conscription orders that began in September 1944 followed proper legal and administrative procedures," Lee added.  

Lee also repudiated allegations that Chosun laborers were given more strenuous assignments than mainland laborers. He suggested that Japanese companies often selected young, healthy males for underground mine work. Given that most recruited Koreans were in their 20s and 30s, they naturally took on more laborious tasks.

Lee also touched on the recent controversy surrounding the Sado Gold Mines. "Labor and living conditions in Sado mines were far better than other Japanese mines. It had one of the lowest runaways compared to other mines. In fact, Many Chosun laborers brought their families along," Lee explained. 

One of the buildings at the Sado gold mine on Sado Island (© Ryusuke Nagatani)

Respecting International Law 

Another crucial aspect of the mobilization issue is the victims' lawsuits against Japanese corporations. In 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs who sought compensation from two Japanese companies: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel

Hong Sungkee, a law professor at Inha University, claimed that former President Moon Jae In had a duty to clarify the Supreme Court decision to the Japanese counterpart in 2018. 

"The South Korean President should have called [late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe and explained that the ruling would not affect the Japanese companies," Hong said. 

He further argued that the President's job is to prevent any catastrophic judicial rulings from influencing diplomatic relations.     

Hong also rebuked the 2018 Supreme Court ruling as it violated the Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea signed in 1965. Under this agreement, the Japanese government views all disputes pertaining to the Republic of Korea's colonial era as "completely and finally" settled.

"Under the Vienna Convention, a treaty between two nations must be kept no matter what the domestic law prescribes. When in dispute, relevant parties must establish an arbitration committee via a diplomatic channel," Hong explained.  

Regarding the Supreme Court's opinion that Japan's occupation of Korea was illegal, Hong said it was "utterly nonsensical." He contended that colonization and imperialism in the 19th century were nothing unusual. And under international law at the time, annexation was considered justified and normative. 

Limitations of the Third-Party Settlement 

Earlier this year, Seoul agreed to execute the 2018 Supreme Court decision through a "third-party settlement." Essentially, the South Korean government and corporations agreed to compensate the alleged victims on behalf of the plaintiffs. 

Hwang Uiwon, editor-in-chief of MediaWatch, said this recent endeavor is highly volatile and could derail. He reasoned that the third-party option virtually defies the Basic Treaty of 1965 and criminalizes contemporary Japan. Hwang argued that this sort of makeshift deal is tantamount to "historical negationism" and will not end neatly. 

Hwang Uiwon, editor-in-chief and publisher, delivers his presentation. (© Hwang Uiwon)

He also questioned whether the Korean public will accept the third-party settlement in the long run.

"There are about 7.8 million victims of labor mobilization [including all Korean laborers [not just miners but civil servants, soldiers, etc], according to one Korean study presented by attorney Park In-hawn. Based on the 2018 Supreme Court decision, all 7.8 million victims must be compensated either by the Korean company or through tax. Do you think the Koreans tolerate this?" Hwang said. 

In his final remark, Hwang argued that South Korea and Japan can only rejuvenate their ties based on truth. 

"The best solution to resolving historical disputes is by promoting the facts. In that sense, we must continue to hold these seminars at a higher level and present objective facts on the mobilization issue," he said.  

Invited Speakers

  • Hong Sungkee (Professor, Inha University Law School)
  • Hwang Uiwon (Editor-in-chief, MediaWatch)
  • Kim Byungheon (Educator)
  • Lew Seok-Choon (Retired Professor, Yonsei University)
  • Lee Chang-wee (Professor, University of Seoul Law School)
  • Lee Woo-Youn(Researcher, Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research)
  • Park In-hwan (Lawyer)


Author: Kenji Yoshida