Yang Geum-deok, one of the Korean victims of Japan’s mobilization of forced labor, speaks at a press conference on Nov. 29, 2022, the fourth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s recently unveiled framework for a resolution to the issue of compensation for victims of forced labor during Japanese occupation revolves around the “overlapping assumption of obligation,” by a Korean foundation and developing “future-oriented” ties.
Yet it does not include a direct apology from the Japanese government for forced labor, nor does it include apologies and reparations from Japanese companies who committed war crimes in their mobilization of Korean forced labor. Nothing about what has been release thus far is related to the South Korean Supreme Court’s final and definitive ruling (Oct. 30-Nov. 29, 2018) that recognized the “liability for damages” of offending Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi.
This is a complete victory for the Japanese government, which has steadfastly rejected the South Korean Supreme Court ruling as a “violation” of international law.
It is a self-defeating solution that is a major step backward from Yoon’s 2022 address for Liberation Day, in which he pledged to inherit the spirit of the Korea-Japan joint declaration of 1998.
The two pillars of the “Joint Declaration on a New Republic of Korea-Japan Partnership towards the 21st Century,” signed by then-President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in Tokyo on Oct. 8, 1998, are “squarely facing the past” and “building a future-oriented relationship.” However, the Yoon administration has seemed to have abandoned the task of “facing the past” in favor of building a “future-oriented” relationship in this solution.
This third-party repayment plan, first discussed by the Yoon administration on Jan. 12, involves the acquisition of the debts of offending Japanese companies guilty of war crimes — and, therefore, liable for compensation according to the Supreme Court — by a South Korean body known as the Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan. Compensation to the victims will be arranged by collecting donations from the private sector, including Korean companies.
It’s a perplexing solution that leaves the perpetrators to remain as bystanders.
Though not part of the announcement on Monday, there has been talk of establishing a “future youth fund,” an initiative by the Federation of Korean Industries and the Japanese Business Federation to create a fund to provide scholarships to Korean students who wish to study abroad in Japan. However, this is a separate issue unrelated to the issue of victims of forced labor. This is why it has been criticized as a “watering-down” or “cover-up,” in the words of Lim Jae-sung, one of the legal representatives for multiple forced labor victims.
Above all, Yoon’s solution has fundamental problems that go beyond the issue of the current government — problems that cannot be covered up by the rhetoric of “opening a future-oriented relationship between Korea and Japan.”
First, it directly conflicts with the principle of centering victims in international humanitarian law. One only has to look at the agreement on the “comfort women” issue signed by the Park Geun-hye administration and the Shinzo Abe administration on Dec. 28, 2015, to see that a diplomatic patch-up that fails to focus on victims is nothing but a shortcut to a deeper quagmire.
“It looks like the Yoon administration has jumped into the fire with its hands tied behind its back,” said a longtime observer of South Korea-Japan relations, “and it could lead to a more serious conflict than the ‘comfort women’ agreement.”
Second, the “third-party repayment” plan, which lets Japanese companies that utilized forced labor off the hook, carries the risk of nullifying the Supreme Court ruling that recognized Mitsubishi and other offending companies’ liability for “damages for violations of international law and illegal acts.”
The Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling was a determination by Korea’s highest body of constitutional interpretation that the 1965 claims agreement with Japan, which was based on “the international jurisdiction of the courts of the Republic of Korea,” did not “extinguish the claims of individual Korean citizens.” Yoon's solution ignores the underlying spirit of the Supreme Court’s decision, which sought to “redress damages caused by illegal colonization and wars of aggression.”
Third, because of these circumstances, Yoon’s solution risks being interpreted and misused diplomatically and administratively, as people could say that he has sided with the Japanese government in the long-standing dispute between Japan and South Korea over whether Japanese colonization was “legal” or “illegal.”
The South Korean Constitution states in its preamble that it “uphold[s] the cause of the Provisional Republic of Korea Government born of the March First Independence Movement of 1919,” and the 2018 Supreme Court ruling is based on the interpretation that “Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula during the Japanese colonial period was an illegal occupation in light of the provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea.”
This is why many experts on Korea-Japan relations, including Seoul National University professor Nam Ki-jeong, are concerned that the Yoon administration's roundabout repayment plan is “likely to be interpreted in favor of Japan, which claims that its colonial rule was legal.”
Furthermore, the agreement between Yoon and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is unlikely to resolve the issue of victims of forced labor. The number of victims (15 plaintiffs in four cases) who have won Supreme Court judgments against Japanese companies in South Korea is only 0.0069% of the total number of forced laborers officially recognized by the South Korean government (218,639).
There are 1,124 victims in 66 cases already pending in the courts. These cases are set to win unless the Supreme Court overturns the 2018 ruling. This is not a problem that Yoon’s government can unilaterally declare “resolved.”
By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer; Kim So-youn, Tokyo correspondent
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