The new plan ends the forced labor dispute between South Korea and Japan

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea has taken a step toward improving ties with arch-rival Japan, announcing…

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea took a step toward improving ties with arch-rival Japan, announcing a plan Monday to raise local civil funds to compensate Koreans who won damages in lawsuits against Japanese companies that enslaved them during the 35- year-long colonial period in Tokyo’s rule on the Korean peninsula.

The plan reflects conservative President Yoon Suk-yeol’s determination to repair strained relations with Japan and strengthen security cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to better deal with North Korea’s nuclear threats.

President Joe Biden hailed the plan as a new step in cooperation and partnership between the two closest allies of the United States and said he hoped to strengthen trilateral ties. Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida “are taking an important step to create a safer, more secure and more prosperous future for the Korean and Japanese people,” Biden said in a statement.

The plan, however, sparked an immediate backlash from former forced laborers and their supporters, who demanded direct compensation from Japanese companies and a new apology from the Japanese government.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said in a televised press conference that compensation would be paid to the victims through a local fund funded by civilian donations. He said South Korea and Japan are in a “new window of opportunity” to overcome their past conflicts and build a future-oriented relationship.

“And I think this is the last opportunity,” Park said. “If we compare it to a glass of water, (I) think the glass is more than half full of water. We expect the glass to be filled further based on Japan’s sincere response.”

The park did not specify how the fund would be financed. But in January, Shim Kyu-sun, chairman of the Imperial Japan Forced Mobilization Relief Fund, which will handle the reparations, said the funds would come from South Korean companies that benefited from a 1965 treaty between Seoul and Tokyo that normalized their relationship.

The 1965 agreement was accompanied by hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid and loans from Tokyo to Seoul, which were used in development projects by major South Korean companies, including POSCO, now a global steel giant.

Ties between the US’s Asian allies have long been complicated by grievances over Japan’s brutal rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, when hundreds of thousands of Koreans were mobilized as forced labor for Japanese companies or as sex slaves in Tokyo’s military brothels. The Second World War.

Their historic dispute intensified after South Korea’s Supreme Court in 2018 ordered two Japanese companies, Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, to pay compensation to former Korean forced laborers or their relatives who died.

Japan, which insists all wartime reparations issues were settled under the 1965 treaty, reacted furiously to the 2018 rulings by imposing export controls in 2019 on chemicals vital to South Korea’s semiconductor industry, citing worsening bilateral trust.

South Korea, then ruled by Yun’s liberal predecessor Moon Jae-in, accused Japan of arms trafficking and subsequently threatened to scrap a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo, the main symbol of its trilateral security cooperation with Washington.

The hostility between Seoul and Tokyo has complicated U.S. efforts to strengthen cooperation with two key Asian allies in the face of confrontations with China and North Korea. Concerns about their strained ties grew in both South Korea and Japan when North Korea adopted an escalating nuclear doctrine last year and test-fired more than 70 missiles, the most in a single year. Many of the missiles tested were nuclear weapons that put both countries within striking distance.

Since taking office last May, Yoon has sought to improve relations with Japan and strengthen its military alliance with the United States, as well as the Seoul-Washington-Tokyo trilateral security cooperation. Japan has also made clear efforts to improve relations, such as the recent election of a former prime minister known for his close ties to South Korea to head a bilateral parliamentary group chaired by a former cabinet member.

During a parliamentary session on Monday, Kishida said he supported Japan’s previous expressions of regret and apology for its colonial wrongdoing, but said lifting Japan’s export controls was a separate issue. He said Japan would continue to seek an appropriate response from Seoul for its actions, including a complaint filed with the WTO.

Asked about South Korea’s failure to ensure Japanese companies participate in forced labor compensation, Park, the foreign minister, said he did not expect the Japanese government to block “voluntary donations” from the civilian sector. Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters that Japan “appreciates” South Korea’s statement and hopes that political, cultural and economic ties between the two countries will deepen from now on.

Former forced labourers, their supporters and Liberal opposition MPs condemned the government’s plan, calling it a diplomatic capitulation. Some activists who support the former forced laborers and their lawyers plan to hold rallies later on Monday.

“Essentially, the money from South Korean companies will be used to deprive the forced laborers of their receivables,” lawyer Lim Jae-sun, who represented some of the plaintiffs, wrote on Facebook. “This is an absolute victory for Japan, which insists it cannot spend a single yen on the forced labor problem.”

The protests will deal a political blow to Yun, whose approval ratings are relatively low amid intense internal divisions between conservatives and liberals.

“This is a big political gamble by Yun,” said Bon Yong-shik, an expert at the Seoul-based Yonsei Institute for North Korea Studies. “So to speak, it seems that he will do as he wants, because whatever steps his government proposes, there will be negative reactions at home. I think he decided to negotiate to move forward.”

Bong said Yun was likely under pressure to strengthen South Korea’s defense capabilities and military alliance with the United States amid rising missile threats from North Korea. Improving ties with Japan is essential to strengthening both the US alliance and the Seoul-Washington-Tokyo Trilateral Security Alliance, Bong said.

Choi Eun-mi, a Japan expert at South Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said it was clear that third-party compensation for forced labor was the only realistic solution for South Korea because there are “fundamental” differences with Japan over the 2018 Ordinance.

She said it was also difficult for Seoul officials to ignore the advanced age of the victims. “It could be said that the government rushed the decision, but the negotiations have been going on for almost a year and the plaintiffs would lose the most if the matter is not resolved now,” Choi said.

Many former forced laborers have already died, and those who survived are in their 90s. Among the 15 victims featured in the 2018 court decisions, only three are currently alive.


Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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