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(News Focus) Seoul's controversial plan for forced labor compensation reflects urgency of security partnership with Tokyo: experts

All News 15:31 March 06, 2023

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, March 6 (Yonhap) -- South Korea seems to have opted for a workable solution to the longstanding row with Japan over how to compensate victims of wartime forced labor as part of efforts to normalize bilateral economic cooperation and bolster trilateral security partnerships involving the United States, experts here said Monday.

The Yoon Suk Yeol administration announced the scheme to provide payments to 15 Koreans, who won lawsuits against two Japanese firms -- Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon Steel Corp. -- with a fund to be raised through the private sector's "voluntary donations" without direct involvement of the responsible ones.

The decision, following multiple rounds of negotiations with Japan, is expected to help clear the way for the neighboring countries to put their diplomatic ties back on track and strengthen security cooperation against growing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. The United States also has been bent on reinforcing three-way security ties not only to deter North Korea's provocations but also to navigate the geopolitical tensions from China's assertiveness and Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

For the Yoon government, however, it heralds a fierce political pushback with victims and their supporters left dissatisfied.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin speaks during a press conference on a scheme to compensate victims of Japan's wartime forced labor at his ministry in Seoul on March 6, 2023. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin speaks during a press conference on a scheme to compensate victims of Japan's wartime forced labor at his ministry in Seoul on March 6, 2023. (Pool photo) (Yonhap)

Experts say that Seoul's choice, apparently based on a high-stakes settlement on the thorny and politically sensitive issue of forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule, offers at least diplomatic relief in rifts between the two Northeast Asian powers that have even affected trade and some other fields.

U.S. President Joe Biden was quick in responding positively to the move.

"Today's announcements between the Republic of Korea and Japan mark a groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States' closest allies," he said in a statement, using the official name of South Korea. "When fully realized, their steps will help us to uphold and advance our shared vision for a free and open Indo Pacific."

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi also stated Tokyo's position to honor the 1998 joint declaration adopted by then President Kim Dae-jung and then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

At that time, Obuchi expressed "deep remorse" for the "tremendous damage and suffering" inflicted on Koreans during Japan's colonial rule.

But a failure to require the direct involvement of the two Japanese firms in the compensation process is likely to draw a backlash at home, as the victims have demanded such a requirement, based on Tokyo's sincere apology for its past atrocity, as central to any reparation deal.

The Yoon administration was apparently well aware of such political risks, but it appears to have prioritized moving toward the future and stopping the diplomatic spat from chipping away at the potential for bilateral cooperation, observers said.

"Yoon has apparently spent a tremendous amount of political capital on this," Park Won-gon, a diplomatic expert at Ewha Womans University, said. "That said, the deal illustrates his determination for progress in Seoul-Tokyo relations and trilateral cooperation with Washington to respond to the North Korean threats and the shifting international politics."

Seoul's fence-mending endeavor came as it has been under growing pressure to align more closely with Washington amid an intensifying Sino-U.S. rivalry and Russia's war in Ukraine that saw the world splintering into geopolitical blocs.

"South Korea could end up facing some sort of diplomatic isolation due to the deterioration of its relations with Japan, when Tokyo is in sync with America's world strategy," said Park Young-june, a professor at the Korea National Defense University. "Seoul made at least the second best choice, which would help avoid a potentially worse situation."

Seoul's compensation scheme raised hopes that the two countries' relations will be put back on a more stable footing after years of friction over a range of historical and other issues, especially during the preceding Moon Jae-in administration.

Following the 2018 Supreme Court rulings, relations between the two neighbors had been on a slippery slope.

In what was seen as a retaliatory step against the rulings, Tokyo slapped restrictions on the exports to South Korea of three key materials used to produce semiconductors and display panels in 2019.

At that time, Seoul decided to end the GSOMIA information-sharing pact with Japan, though it later "conditionally" put off its expiry. The tussle over the GSOMIA is thought to have made the pact underutilized.

Months earlier, Seoul and Tokyo were even mired in a rancorous spat over Japanese maritime patrol aircraft's menacing low-altitude flybys over South Korean warships, following Tokyo's accusations that a South Korean warship had locked its fire-control radar on its plane.

On the back of the settlement to the forced labor issue, the two countries' cooperation on security, trade and diplomacy, especially at the top level, is expected to take a turn for the better.

Some observers raised the prospects of Yoon being invited to attend the Group of Seven summit set to take place in Hiroshima in May, in what would be an occasion to set the stage for the resumption of "shuttle" diplomacy between the two countries' leaders.

On the security front, the two Asian countries, and their ally, the U.S., are likely to deepen and broaden their security consultations and strengthen their trilateral military training and other activities, according to Park of the Korean National Defense University.

Signs of an improvement in Seoul-Tokyo ties dovetail with Washington's drive to put the two Asian allies at the center of its campaign to promote a "free and open" Indo-Pacific and maintain what it calls the international "rules-based" order.

"I look forward to continuing to strengthen and enhance the trilateral ties between the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the United States," U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement. "As today's announcements remind us, our countries are stronger -- and the world is safer and more prosperous -- when we stand together."

A diplomatic settlement of the forced labor issue, however, does not mean that relations between Seoul and Tokyo will be largely smooth sailing, analysts said.

A raft of issues still remain unresolved, including Japan's repeated claims to Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo and its right-wing politicians' periodic visits to the Yasukuni Shrine glorifying its war dead.


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