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[Speaking Out] Wartime Labor: Japan Should Not Shoulder Unreasonable Responsibility 

While any improvement in Japan-South Korea relations is welcome, resolution of the wartime labor issue will only be temporarily if it ignores the 1965 treaty.



wartime labor
A public forum was held in Seoul on January 12 to discuss solutions to the so-called forced labor lawsuit.

South Korea earlier this month announced a proposal on the wartime labor issue. It calls for a government affiliated foundation to pay compensation on behalf of two Japanese companies ordered by the South Korean Supreme Court to make the payment to Koreans who claim to have been forcefully requisitioned to work in Japan during World War II. 

The "concurrent debt assumption" proposal is based on the premise that the Japanese companies have debts and must sign contracts with the Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan, a public-interest corporation under control by the Ministry of the Interior and Safety, for the assumption of the payments. I am afraid Japan may have to admit some unreasonable responsibility to resolve the pending issue. 

Complying With 1965 Treaty and Agreement

As known well, the issue can be traced back to the South Korean Supreme Court’s rulings in 2018 that ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. (now Nippon Steel Corp.) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to pay compensation to wartime Korean workers, the plaintiffs of the lawsuit. The companies’ assets in South Korea have been seized for possible sales to raise resources for the compensation.

The Japanese side has refused to accept both the Supreme Court rulings and the asset sales on the ground that the Korean wartime workers issue had already been resolved through the 1965 agreement between Japan and South Korea for settling mutual claims and that the South Korean government should pay compensation to individuals if the South Koreans deem it necessary. 

The Japanese side should retain its hitherto known stance in response to the latest South Korean proposal. As the South Korean Supreme Court rulings and the subsequent settlement proposal have ignored the 1965 agreement as international law binding Japan and South Korea, the two countries are expected to remain apart over the issue. 

wartime labor
On January 30, a civic group protests the South Korean government's proposed solution to the so-called forced labor issue in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul, where the Japan-South Korea Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director-General Meeting was held. (© Kyodo)

South Korea’s Stubborn Victim Mentality 

Some in South Korea even claim that the 1910 Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty was invalid. Given that they claim the treaty signed by the emperor of the Korean Empire as invalid and ignore Japan’s 35-year rule of the Korean Peninsula, any agreement with South Korea has potential to be nullified.

A discussion meeting where the South Korean government proposal was announced was named a  "public forum to discuss coercive requisition and its solutions." The word  "coercive requisition" has been used in Southern Korea since just after World War II. During the war, not only Koreans but also Japanese were obliged to be requisitioned as they were all Japanese citizens. 

As symbolized by this word, a background factor behind the issue is Koreans’ stubborn victim mentality. 


Realistic Expectations

At a time when tensions are growing on the Korean Peninsula, any improvement in Japan-South Korea relations is welcome. Even if the Japanese side shoulders an unreasonable responsibility by giving priority to solving the issue, however, its effect may be temporary. Even the 1965 claims agreement that took 14 years to be reached has been ignored as time has gone by. 

In exploring options for a breakthrough on the issue, Japan should hold fast to principles without shouldering any unreasonable responsibility. 


(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, Speaking Out #1003 in Japanese on January 23 and in English on January 25, 2023.)

Nobuko Araki 

Nobuko Araki is a Korea researcher and a member of the Planning Committee at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.

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