On March 6, the government of South Korea announced a solution in the World War II labor dispute that had plagued South Korea-Japan relations for years.
A Change in Policy
South Korea's Foreign Minister Park Jin announced the government's decision. In making the announcement he elaborated that a government-backed foundation will provide reparations to compensate South Korean laborers for their work during World War II. Laborers in 15 cases are eligible for compensation, according to the foreign ministry of South Korea.
In addition, a joint foundation between South Korea and Japan is set to finance scholarships for academic exchanges between the two countries. It's expected that the Japanese government will contribute to these funds but not as compensation.
This shift brings a change to the relations between the two countries, which have been frosty since 2018.
History Affecting the Present
Japan and South Korea, both United States allies, have had various disagreements about historical issues. For example, on the comfort women issue. But after the South Korean courts intervened in 2018, the topic of wartime labor permeated into all aspects of diplomatic relations.
At that time, South Korea's Supreme Court said the 1965 treaty and settlement of claims between the two countries was not valid. It then ordered Japanese firms Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay reparations to former Korean laborers from World War II.
The Japanese government rejected the court's stance because it voided the 1965 treaty under which diplomatic relations were normalized. The treaty language says it settled all claims. Under it, Japan made payments to the South Korean government.
South Korea's November 2018 supreme court decision and the Moon government's reaction generated deep distrust between the two countries. Shortly thereafter in December 2018, the South Korean navy locked its radar onto a Japanese reconnaissance plane. The hostile move deepened the mistrust.
The radar lock-on incident and the supreme court decision both played a role in a trade dispute in 2019. At that time, Japan implemented export restrictions on key items such as semiconductors to South Korea. In addition, the leaders of the two countries stopped talking to each other and holding formal summit meetings.
Reaction on the Ground
Officials in both governments welcomed the change on March 6 as a step towards better Japan-South Korea relations.
At his press conference, Park said that Japan is "our closest neighbor with whom we share universal values." He also made an appeal to "break the vicious circle of worsening relations between Japan and South Korea for the sake of the national interest and the people."
"We welcome the move to restore healthy relations between Japan and South Korea that were in a very dire place since the supreme court decision of 2018," said Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi to reporters. "We are hopeful that the exchanges between our two countries will greatly increase going forward," he added.
Some claiming to represent the former laborers, on the other hand, have objected. A small group of demonstrators gathered in front of South Korea's foreign ministry to oppose the decision.
Changing Political Winds
Recent political changes seem to have informed the developments.
Former South Korean President Moon Jae In turned his focus toward reunification and warming relations with North Korea. During his administration, rather than trying to work with Japan, he instead advanced the demand for new reparations.
Yoon Suk-yeol took office in May 2022. Since then, his administration has sought to improve relations with Japan. Leaders of the two sides also began speaking to each other. In November of the same year, President Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida held the first formal summit meeting in three years between the two governments. Both sides expressed a desire for an early resolution on this issue.
This time, President Yoon began to set the stage just a week before the March 6 announcement. He commented that Japan had transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values as South Korea.
Korea Expert Weighs In
Not everyone is taking the news at face value.
While acknowledging South Korea's announcement as a step forward, "I see this as a temporary measure to avoid the worsening of Japan-South Korea relations," says Tsutomu Nishioka, a visiting professor at Reitaku University. He is an expert on Korean Peninsula affairs and follows the issue closely.
In fact, while the South Korean Foreign Ministry has offered a possible solution, he says, it does so while "respecting the Supreme Court ruling and promoting new efforts to remember the past." In other words, points out the Reitaku professor, "this is the beginning rather than the end of resolving the issue."
Professor Nishioka analyzes that a long-term solution can only be achieved if the historical issue at the heart of the dispute is resolved. That is whether wartime Korean laborers were forcibly removed from the peninsula or not.
Yet, he also points towards signs of positive changes in perception. On March 1, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo published an article by Lee Young-hoon. In it he reported a statement by 46 intellectuals. It says that claims of forced rendition and forced labor are not facts. And it calls on the South Korean Government to declare that there is no historical dispute between Japan and South Korea.
Referring to the intellectuals, Nishioka concluded: "They are the true friends of Japan and South Korea. The time has come for the two countries to join forces and form a friendship based on the truth."
As North Korea accelerates its nuclear and missile development, President Yoon believes that it is essential to strengthen security cooperation among the three countries including the United States.
The Sankei Shimbun reports that government sources on both sides are saying that the leaders of Japan and South Korea plan to hold a summit in the near future. South Korean media also reports that President Yoon is considering meeting Kishida.
- South Korea and Japan Relations Have a Chance at a New Beginning
- Can the Wartime Labor Mobilization Issue Be Resolved for Good?
- [Wartime Laborers] Koreans Were Compensated Twice Before
Author: Arielle Busetto