Can South Korean Govt Implement Its Plan to Resolve Persistent Issue?

The South Korean government’s stance of aiming to improve relations with Japan by addressing an issue that the previous administration left unresolved is noteworthy. The question is whether the government will be able to put it into action. It is hoped that President Yoon Suk-yeol will display his leadership in solving the issue.

The South Korean government has announced a proposal to solve the pending issue of lawsuits regarding former wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula. Under the proposal, a foundation under the aegis of the South Korean government will pay compensation to lawsuit plaintiffs in place of the Japanese firms that were ordered to pay damages by the South Korean Supreme Court in 2018.

The South Korean government has also acknowledged that it would be difficult to get the Japanese companies to apologize or contribute funds as demanded by the plaintiffs. If this proposed solution is realized, a situation could be avoided in which assets that have been seized from the Japanese companies in South Korea based on the Supreme Court rulings are converted into cash.

The position of the Japanese government is that the issue of former wartime requisitioned workers was solved under the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which declared that the issue of claims had been “settled completely and finally.”

The previous administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in contrast to the present administration, took no remedial measures. It claimed it could not intervene in judicial decisions.

If the assets are converted into cash, the foundation of postwar Japan-South Korea relations could collapse. It can be said that the proposed solution this time is a last-minute political move that respects the South Korean Supreme Court decision while also taking into account the Japanese government’s position that there is no way that Japanese companies can contribute funds for that purpose.

The South Korean government has explained the proposed solution to the Japanese side and is expected to formally present it soon. The Japanese side, too, needs to actively make use of this opportunity.

The focus will be on the trend of public opinion in South Korea.

When the South Korean government explained the proposed solution in an open public debate, some of the plaintiffs emotionally objected to the proposal, calling it a concession to Japan. Opposition parties and civic groups have also been sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ claims.

Hopefully, the South Korean government will provide a thorough explanation from the perspective that the main purpose of the proposal is to support and aid former wartime requisitioned workers. Whether the Japanese side will take measures to try to soften the backlash in South Korean public opinion will also determine the future of the proposed solution.

The situation of Tokyo and Seoul being at loggerheads over issues involving historical perceptions, such as that of former wartime requisitioned workers, has become a stumbling block to bilateral cooperation in the security field. This situation needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

As North Korea accelerates its nuclear and missile development and China intensifies its military threats around Taiwan, it is essential to strengthen cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea. Improvement of Japan-South Korea relations is a prerequisite for this.

To demonstrate solidarity among democracies, the Japanese government intends to invite South Korea and other countries to a summit of the Group of Seven advanced nations to be held in Hiroshima City in May. By then, it is hoped that the issue of former wartime requisitioned workers will have been resolved.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 20, 2023)