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[Speaking Out] Wartime Labor Solution Ignoring Historical Truth Won't Last

The wartime labor settlement only presents a band-aid solution. After all, the next South Korean government could dredge the whole dispute back up again.



South Korea
Park Jin holds a press conference on the solution for the wartime labor issue on March 6, 2023 in Seoul. (© Kyodo)

South Korea's Yoon Suk Yeol government announced a solution to the wartime labor issue in Japan on March 6. It can be regarded as a temporary measure to avoid any further deterioration of Japan-South Korea relations. Under the solution, a South Korean government-affiliated fund will pay compensation to former workers. 

The aim is to avoid a worst case situation in the deterioration of bilateral relations. This could happen if Japanese companies' confiscated assets were to be converted into cash. At the same time, the solution offered may be temporary because it could lose efficacy under the next South Korean government.

A Temporary Solution

The South Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 ordered two Japanese firms to pay compensation to the plaintiffs. The 15 plaintiffs were former wartime workers in Japan and their bereaved descendents. Most have reportedly agreed to accept compensation payments from the fund. But some, including three former wartime workers, refused to accept the payments. 

For those who refused, the fund may deposit compensation payments to prevent confiscated Japanese assets from being converted into cash. If they file a complaint against the deposition, the court battle may continue. But the conversion of the Japanese assets into cash will be suspended for the time being.

The Japanese government under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has strongly urged the Yoon government to abandon its "right" of demanding compensation from Japanese companies. The aim is to prevent the issue from being brought up again by the next South Korean government.

However, the announced solution does not include the abandonment of this "right". Leftist opposition parties and South Korean mass media have criticized the solution as a humiliating diplomatic concession to the victimizers. Therefore, a change of government will likely encourage the fund to exercise the right to reimbursement and confiscate assets of the Japanese companies again, thereby reversing the solution.

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

A Major Prerequisite for Bilateral Cooperation

The solution is only a temporary one that prevents the worst deterioration of relations. But it has served Japan's national interests in the sense that it has created room for Japan to cooperate with the Yoon government in addressing the North Korean missile threat.

However, there is a basic prerequisite for bilateral cooperation. Namely, a resolution regarding the incident in which a South Korean naval ship directed its fire-control radar at a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft in December 2018. 


Directing the radar at a Japanese aircraft simulated an attack on the Japanese patrol plane. The Yoon government should therefore apologize to Japan and punish those responsible for the incident. Many Japanese Self-Defense Forces members are still quietly upset. The Kishida government should not seek the gradual development of bilateral cooperation while leaving this incident unresolved.

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)

Japan Needs to Communicate More

On March 6, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi reaffirmed that the Kishida government continues the stance of successive cabinets concerning historical perceptions. Seoul should have interpreted this to understand that the Kishida government also inherits the repeated apologies made by successive administrations.

But therein lies the pitfall. Until now, the Japanese government has offered apologies from a moral point of view based on modern values. They are not admissions of legal responsibility. It has maintained that (1) Japan is not liable for compensation for its rule of Korea because it was legal and that (2) the wartime mobilization of Koreans was neither coercive recruitment nor forced mobilization. 

Since the 1980s, however, the Japanese government has repeated this apology without emphasizing the above two points. As a result, South Korea has repeatedly blamed Japan for withdrawing its apology shortly after offering it. Japan's apology has deteriorated bilateral relations.

Japan's government and private sectors must unite to proactively communicate the above two points to the international community. Otherwise, Seoul will surely accuse the Kishida government of betrayal when Japan makes those claims.

For example, in the authorization of school textbooks or in the process of promoting the registration of the Sado Island goldmines as a World Cultural Heritage site. The Japanese government and private sectors must work together with like-minded South Koreans to fight against false historical perceptions.


(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, Speaking Out #1021 in Japanese on March 8 and in English on March 10, 2023.)

Author: Tsutomu Nishioka

Tsutomu Nishioka is a senior fellow and a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a visiting professor at Reitaku University. He covers South and North Koreas.