by Ambra Visentin

The decades-long dispute between Japan and South Korea over the compensation of forced labourers seems finally set to be resolved. For years, the governments have been arguing about compensation for former forced labourers and forced prostitutes, the so-called ‘comfort women’, the Korean girls forced by Japanese occupiers to prostitute themselves for the military during World War II. South Korean President Yoon Seok-youl has been working on this rapprochement since he came to power in May 2022. The solution, presented by South Korea on Monday 6 January is essentially to compensate former South Korean forced labourers in the service of Japan through a public fund to which private donations will flow. Seoul is expected to ask South Korean companies to contribute to the fund. Japanese companies will be able to contribute voluntarily.

At the same time, the Japanese government confirmed previous demands for an apology for the suffering inflicted on Koreans by Japan as a colonial power from 1910 to 1945. For US President Joe Biden, this is a groundbreaking new chapter in relations between two of his closest allies that would help advance the shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Improved relations between the two Northeast Asian democracies open up the possibility of greater trilateral cooperation with America, including military cooperation, and a strengthening of unity against Chinese claims and the threat of North Korea.

In 2015, South Korea and Japan had signed an agreement on comfort women, calling it ‘final and irreversible’. The then prime minister, Shinzo Abe, put aside his nationalism, apologised to the victims and agreed to pay around $9 million into a compensation fund. However, some of the women and their families protested, claiming that they had not been consulted and that Japan’s apology was not an admission of responsibility. After winning the election in 2017, the newly elected South Korean president Moon Jae-in, a human rights advocate, decided to close the fund, officially reopening the dispute. According to historians, tens of thousands of women, mostly Koreans but also Chinese, were forced into prostitution by Japan during the Second World War.

In 2018, a number of South Korean courts had ordered some Japanese companies to compensate citizens forced to work in Japanese factories or mines during the occupation. Diplomatic tensions had escalated, leading to a series of trade boycotts and Moon’s threat to cut off intelligence cooperation with Japan, which was only restored at the last moment after US mediation.

Now, the Seoul government’s proposal could lead to a thaw in strained relations between the two countries. According to South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, the Foundation for Victims of Imperial Japan’s Forced Mobilisation, which is under the Ministry of the Interior, ‘will pay the amount of compensation, including interest, set by the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision’. The funds will come from voluntary contributions from the private sector and foundation projects. In return, Seoul expects Japan to ‘respond positively (…) with voluntary contributions from Japanese companies and a full apology’. Without going into the details of the Japanese response, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida welcomed the South Korean proposal.

However, victims and the opposition in South Korea reacted critically to the government’s proposal, describing it as an act of ‘capitulation’ to Japan. Lee Jae-myung, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, accused Yoon of betraying historical justice and surrendering to Japan. The criticism is directed at the fact that it is not the companies being sued, Japan Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, but South Korean companies that will compensate the former forced labourers. Lawyers for the victims have argued that the South Korean government is in effect granting the Japanese defendants immunity from legal liability. Even in the presidential camp there is some reluctance. “The ball is in Japan’s court to decide whether to leave the issue unresolved or end it by showing genuine concern for South Korea’s expectations of Japan,” said Chung Jin-suk of the People’s Power Party (PPP).

Cover Image: © Melissa Wall on Flickr