South Korean victims of forced labor and their attorneys and Japanese activists head to the headquarters of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal in Tokyo to demand compensation for victims on Dec. 4
The South Korean government has proposed to Japan that the victims of forced labor during the Japanese colonial occupation be compensated through voluntary donations by South Korean and Japanese companies. With Japan opposing the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling on forced labor in October 2018 and instigating a public debate, both domestically and internationally, about that ruling, the South Korean government has come up with its own alternative, effectively leaving the ball in Japan’s court. The Japanese government has announced that it rejects this proposal.
“The view has been expressed that it would be desirable to achieve reconciliation between the parties involved by having South Korean and Japanese companies, including the Japanese companies that are parties to the lawsuit, to make voluntary donations to pay the damages that the defendants were awarded [by the court]. If Japan were to accept this plan, the South Korean government is willing to consider accepting [bilateral diplomatic] deliberations under Article 3, Clause 1, of the agreement about settling claims as requested by the Japanese government, and we recently communicated that position to the Japanese government,” South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on June 19. First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Cho Sei-young conveyed this plan on an unannounced visit to Japan this past weekend.
“While the government’s stance of not intervening in judicial decisions remains unchanged, it intends to dedicate as much effort and as many resources as possible. We made this proposal because the advanced age of the victims requires us to quickly proceed with their relief, and because a settlement is the ideal solution,” an official at the Foreign Ministry explained. This proposal would apply to the victims of forced labor awarded damages by the court, provided that they agree with the plan.
“The South Korean government’s proposal fails to correct the fact that the agreement that is the legal foundation for relations between Japan and South Korea is being violated. Japan cannot accept such a proposal while international law continues to be violated,” said Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Wednesday afternoon, in a clear rejection of the proposal.
Since Japan holds that the issue of compensating victims of forced labor was completely resolved by a 1965 agreement that settled outstanding claims with South Korea, it had never been very likely to agree to the proposal. After South Korea ignored a Japanese request for diplomatic deliberation according to Article 3, Clause 1, of the dispute resolution protocol defined by the claims agreement, Japan requested the establishment of an arbitration committee on May 20.
On Wednesday morning, Kenji Kanasugi, director-general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, summoned Kim Kyung-han, political minister of the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo, to express his “regret” for South Korea’s decision not to nominate a member to the arbitration committee by June 18, which was the deadline of a 30-day period outlined in the agreement. Kanasugi also called for the establishment of an arbitration committee consisting of members of third countries in accordance with Article 3, Clause 3, of the dispute resolution protocol. These steps appear to point the way to filing an action at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the event that South Korea refuses to comply.
Attorneys representing the victims of forced labor in their lawsuit and groups backing those victims expressed their hope that the South Korean government’s proposal would motivate the two governments to actively engage in negotiations aimed at resolving the issue of compulsory mobilization, in light of the advanced age of the victims.
The lawyers representing the victims, the Daegu Citizen Forum for Halmuni, the Center for Historical Truth and Justice, and the Council for Compensation for Victims of the War in the Pacific held an emergency meeting on Wednesday afternoon. “The South Korean government’s proposal can be regarded as positive in that it represents a preliminary step toward initiating bilateral deliberations. Considering that it could take quite some time for deliberations, once they’ve begun, to reach a conclusion, the South Korean government’s proposal can be given positive consideration if it means that the two governments would expand their discussion to comprehensive negotiations, including the issue of other victims, after South Korean and Japanese companies pay victims the amount already awarded by the courts,” the groups said during the meeting.
Activists criticize S. Korean government for not demanding heartfelt apology
These groups also criticized the South Korean government for not asking Japan to “acknowledge the historical facts” or to make a “heartfelt apology” and for not adequately communicating with the victims.
“Even the victims who have filed additional lawsuits recently are prioritizing an apology from Japan. The amount of compensation itself is not the goal of the lawsuits,” said Kim Jeong-hee, an attorney who is representing victims of forced labor at Mitsubishi in their lawsuit.
The South Korean government’s decision to conclude its “cautious review” and provide an “alternative plan” some seven months after the Supreme Court’s decision appears to reflect a complicated mix of diplomatic considerations. Given the strong emphasis that the US has been placing on trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan, Seoul may be hoping that the proposal would have the effect of easing pressure from the US prior to the South Korea-US summit at the end of this month. Furthermore, the proposal can be seen as a counterattack to pressure from Japan in an ongoing public relations campaign, reflecting the conclusion the South Korea’s government’s official stance of a “cautious review” is not an effective response by itself.
“The government has offered the maximum plan it’s capable of offering while maintaining the principle of not intervening in judicial decisions. By passing the ball to Japan, South Korea has established some credibility prior to the G20 summit,” said Yang Gi-ho, a professor at Sungkonghoe University.
Japan’s rejection of this proposal further obscures the prospects of a South Korea-Japan summit being held on the sidelines of the G20 summit, which will be taking place in Japan at the end of June. “The president has expressed his hope that a South Korea-Japan summit will be held at the G20, but the summit is a separate issue from compulsory mobilization,” said an official from South Korea’s Foreign Ministry.
By Park Min-hee and Jan Ye-ji, staff reporters, and Cho Ki-weon, Tokyo correspondent
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