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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on March 8)

All News 06:56 March 08, 2023

Major diplomatic defeat
Seoul plan is also setback from 2015 agreement

Some things are too difficult to accept, no matter how prepared you are.

One such thing is the government's plan announced Monday to resolve the issue of Korean victims of wartime forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 occupation.

Its content had nothing new. Seoul will compensate the claimants first with money donated by Korean companies that benefited from Japan's grants and loans according to the 1965 Basic Agreement.

That was all, however. It contained no follow-up moves from Japan, such as an expression of remorse by Tokyo or consequent participation by the two Japanese wartime employers, Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

"I hope that the Japanese government will offer a comprehensive apology and the Japanese firms will make voluntary contributions to the fund," Foreign Minister Park Jin said. However, Tokyo said it would inherit previous governments' expressions of regrets (without renewing them) and let the two firms decide on their own (instead of forcing anything).

It was a one-sided diplomatic defeat for Seoul. As recently as January, Korean diplomats said they could not finish the bargaining because Tokyo would not promise corresponding steps. Monday's announcement showed they couldn't move an inch forward for two months. Still, Minister Park said, "the solution was made under our initiative," adding that "the cup has now been more than half-filled."

It was little more than the Orwellian twisting of "losing is winning." The cup is undoubtedly half-empty and will likely remain so if Tokyo's attitude does not change. Park said, unlike previous governments, the incumbent administration could no longer ignore the aged victims' situation. But all three surviving plaintiffs rejected the plan, calling it a "beggarly solution." Previous governments could not do it. We can't help but wonder for whom ― and what ― does this government struggle so hard.

President Yoon Suk Yeol answered, "It was a decision from a broad viewpoint for the future-oriented relationship." But Yang Geum-deok, one of the three surviving victims, responded by epitomizing the sentiment shared by most Koreans. "Is President Yoon Suk Yeol Korean or Japanese? Does he live for Japan or us Korean people?" she asked. Korea needs to cooperate with Japan ― and the United States ― for national security and the economy and the future may be more important than the past. But the ignorance of history to this extent is not good for the future relationship.

Even a Japanese civic group said the plan without Tokyo's apology or wartime employers' participation could not be a solution. That shows this issue is also between the conscionable and the unconscionable. Besides, in a rare swift comment on other countries' matters, U.S. President Joe Biden said it "marked a groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States' closest allies." There seems to have been some communication, or connivance, beforehand ― as Washington did eight years ago (a hasty accord on wartime sex slavery) or 118 years ago (Japan's annexation of Korea).

The latest plan is a setback even from the 2015 agreement on former sex slaves. At the time, the Japanese government showed some regrets and chipped in for the joint fund. Technically, the plan has also made two critical mistakes concerning future progress. First, by allowing the Japanese companies to get away without direct payment, it agreed with Tokyo's claims that the 1965 normalization treaty solved all problems. Second, Minister Park said this is the last chance to solve bilateral issues, shutting the door for future discussion even if new problems arise regarding Japan's misdeeds during its colonial occupation. Contrary to President Yoon's wish, Korea cannot escape its history.

Minister Park said this is not the end but a new beginning, hoping for Japan's change of mind. However, there is nothing Korea can do to make Tokyo change.

The plan will only sow the seeds for more trouble. The Yoon administration must drop it and negotiate anew.

The best place for that may not be Seoul or Tokyo but Washington.

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