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(LEAD) (News Focus) Solution to forced labor issue shows Yoon's commitment to improving ties with Japan

All News 15:48 March 06, 2023

(ATTN: UPDATES with Japan's response, other details)
By Lee Haye-ah

SEOUL, March 6 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's decision to compensate wartime forced labor victims without the involvement of Japanese firms is regarded as a demonstration of President Yoon Suk Yeol's commitment to restoring bilateral relations even at the cost of provoking anger in a nation where resentment against Japan's colonial rule still runs deep.

Yoon was elected a year ago after campaigning on a pledge to improve bilateral relations that were badly frayed under the previous Moon Jae-in administration following the Supreme Court's 2018 rulings ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to Korean victims of forced labor during World War II.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (L) shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during their summit at a hotel in Phnom Penh on Nov. 13, 2022. (Yonhap)

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (L) shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during their summit at a hotel in Phnom Penh on Nov. 13, 2022. (Yonhap)

Since his inauguration in May, Yoon stuck to that promise by initiating meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of multilateral gatherings and issuing consistent messages with a focus on promoting a future-oriented relationship with Japan.

Underlying that initiative was an awareness of the importance of strengthening trilateral cooperation among South Korea, the United States and Japan to counter the growing threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

And that sentiment was captured in his speech last week marking the anniversary of the March 1, 1919, Independence Movement against Japanese colonial rule.

"Now, a century after the March 1 Independence Movement, Japan has transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us," Yoon said. "Today Korea and Japan cooperate on issues of security and economy. We also work together to cope with global challenges."

He also said, "The trilateral cooperation among the Republic of Korea, the United States and Japan has become more important than ever to overcome the security crises, including North Korea's growing nuclear threats and the global polycrisis."

The Republic of Korea is South Korea's formal name.

The speech came days before Seoul was to announce the results of negotiations with Tokyo on how to settle the issue of compensation for the forced labor victims.

The final settlement centers on compensating the victims through a foundation set up under the interior ministry with donations from South Korean businesses, not the accused Japanese companies -- Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

The absence of Japanese participation in the foundation is a result of Tokyo's insistence that all matters of compensation were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral ties.

Instead, a new "future youth fund" will be launched jointly by the Federation of Korean Industries, South Korea's big business lobby, and the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), to sponsor scholarships for students and promote cultural exchanges between the two countries.

The two Japanese companies are expected to indirectly contribute to the new fund in the form of Keidanren membership fees or donations.

A South Korean government official said the fund's creation "should be understood as President Yoon Suk Yeol making a broad-minded decision with a view to the future rather than being caught up in the frame of compensation."

But the absence of Japanese participation in directly compensating the victims has already emerged as a key target of criticism for the main opposition Democratic Party.

"The Yoon Suk Yeol administration appears to have ultimately chosen the path to betraying historical justice," DP leader Lee Jae-myung said during a party meeting Monday, calling the deal "the biggest humiliation and stain in diplomatic history."

The victims themselves are also divided on whether to accept the deal, with a number of them planning rallies to protest against the government.

"This is a complete victory by Japan, which claims it cannot pay a single yen toward the issue of forced mobilization," Lim Jae-seong, a lawyer who represented the victims during the trials, wrote on social media.

In the event some of the victims refuse to accept the compensation of South Korean businesses paid on behalf of the Japanese firms, more lawsuits could follow.

The decision could also backfire if the Japanese government fails to follow through on the spirit of the settlement, such as when then Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo categorically denied any plans to send a letter of apology to victims of Japan's wartime sexual slavery following the two countries' agreement to settle the dispute in 2015.

Shortly after Seoul announced its decision Monday, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters in Tokyo that the Japanese government "inherits on the whole" the historical perceptions of past administrations, including a 1998 joint declaration adopted by then President Kim Dae-jung and then Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

In the declaration, the two leaders called for overcoming the past and building new relations, with Obuchi expressing remorse for the "horrendous damage and pain" Japan's colonial rule inflicted on the Korean people.

Meanwhile, Yoon is reportedly considering visiting Japan late this month to hold a summit with Kishida.

"I have stressed that historical issues and issues about the two countries' future should all be placed on one table and resolved together," Yoon told reporters last July.

"We must reject the approach that without progress between the two countries on historical issues, there can be no discussion on current and future issues," he said. "They can all be discussed together, and I believe that if South Korea and Japan can work together for the future, historical issues will also be resolved for sure."


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