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South Korea vows to compensate victims of Japan’s forced wartime labour, aiming to end ‘vicious cycle’

South Korea announced plans on Monday to compensate victims of Japan’s forced wartime labor in a bid to end a “vicious cycle” in relations between Asian powers and strengthen ties in the fight against the nuclear-armed North.

Japan and the United States immediately welcomed the announcement, but victims’ groups said it fell far short of their demand for a full apology from Tokyo and direct compensation from the Japanese companies involved.

Seoul and Tokyo have stepped up security cooperation in the face of growing threats from North Korea, which is expanding its nuclear weapons program in defiance of UN sanctions.

However, relations between Seoul and Tokyo have long been strained due to Tokyo’s brutal colonial rule on the Korean peninsula from 1910-45, when some 780,000 Koreans were taken to Japan for forced labor, according to Seoul figures.

This does not include Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops.

Seoul’s plan is to take money from major South Korean companies that benefited from a 1965 reparations deal with Tokyo and use it to compensate victims and their families, Foreign Minister Park Jin said.

We hope Japan will “respond positively to our major decision today with voluntary contributions from Japanese companies and a comprehensive apology,” he added.

“I believe that the vicious circle should be broken for the sake of the national interest,” Park added.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi welcomed the new plan, telling reporters it would help restore “healthy” ties.

The plan does not include a new apology, although Hayashi said Tokyo stands by a 1998 statement that included an apology.

The two sides moved quickly to ease trade disputes linked to a series of economic measures that were introduced as relations soured after a 2018 ruling by South Korea’s top court ordered some Japanese companies to pay compensation.

And Japanese media reported that South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol may visit Tokyo soon, possibly even this week for a Japan-South Korea baseball game.

But it remained unclear whether Japanese companies, including those named in the 2018 court ruling, such as Nippon Steel, would voluntarily contribute to the new fund.

Nippon Steel said it had no comment on the decision, adding that “our company understands that this issue has been resolved by the 1965 agreement.”

“What Japan Does Next”

US President Joe Biden welcomed “a groundbreaking new chapter in cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies”.

“President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida are taking a critical step toward creating a future for the Korean and Japanese people that is safer, more secure, and more prosperous,” the White House said in a statement.

But analysts were more cautious.

“The significance of today’s announcement will be largely measured by what Japan does next,” Benjamin A. Engel, a research professor at the Institute of International Relations at Seoul National University, told AFP.

At the very least, some kind of apology from Tokyo and donations from two Japanese companies found responsible by South Korea’s top court would help ensure public acceptance of the deal, he said.

“Without these steps from the Japanese side, the Korean government’s announcement will not amount to much,” he said.

The move to address the forced labor issue follows years of World War II sex slave disputes that have strained Japan-South Korea relations.

Seoul and Tokyo reached an agreement in 2015 to “finally and irrevocably” resolve the issue with a Japanese apology and the creation of a one billion yen ($7.4 million) fund for survivors.

However, South Korea later effectively scrapped that deal, citing a lack of consent from the victims, leading to a bitter diplomatic row that spread and affected trade and security ties.

The North Korean threat
South Korean Foreign Minister Park said the plan announced Monday had the support of many victims’ families, adding that Seoul would “see them one by one and consult with them and sincerely seek their understanding.”

But the plan has already sparked strong protests from victims’ groups.

“It’s as if the unions of the victims of forced labor are being dissolved through the money of South Korean companies,” Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer for several victims, said on Facebook on Sunday.

“It is a complete victory for Japan, which cannot spare a single one on the issue of forced labor alone.”

After the plan was announced, even the victim, Yang Geum-deok, immediately condemned it.

“I will not take money that looks like the result of begging,” Yang said, according to Yonhap news agency.

“You have to apologize first and then deal with everything else.”

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