Japan-ROK Relations Warming in Year Since Wartime Labor Issue Resolved; Korea Election Could Revive Tensions

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, left, and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol shake hands in Seoul in May 2023.

Relations between Japan and South Korea have been improving in the year since Seoul announced its plan to resolve the issue of former wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula.

Despite the historical issues that have plagued Japan-South Korea relations for some time, the leaders of the two countries used the resolution to deepen their mutual trust.

Depending on the outcome of the general election in South Korea in April, however, the issue of former requisitioned workers may once more become a stumbling block between the two countries.

The South Korean government, which on March 6 last year announced its plan to resolve the issue, laid out a scheme in which a third party would provide sums equal to the compensation that Japanese companies were ordered to pay in rulings by the South Korean Supreme Court. That third party is the South Korean government-affiliated Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan.

At a press conference Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi referred to the results of this scheme. “Dialogue and cooperation between Japan and South Korea have emerged from a period of stagnation and have expanded significantly in terms of both quality and quantity in various fields, including politics, security, economics and culture,” he said.

Since the announcement of the solution, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol have met seven times, building a relationship of trust.

At a memorial ceremony for the March First Independence Movement against Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Yoon said that Japan “has become a partner cooperating on world peace and prosperity.”

The two countries intend to accelerate reciprocal visits by their leaders to further strengthen relations.

While Kishida’s visit to South Korea planned for this month has been postponed, he has told his aides that if a visit would help Yoon, he will travel to South Korea anytime, likely with the April general election in mind.

The South Korean government intends to deal with plaintiffs who have won lawsuits against the Japanese companies by having the foundation pay out sums equal to the required compensation in accordance with the resolution plan. Another issue will be how to resolve the lack of funds for the foundation.

Since some plaintiffs have refused to take payment, the foundation has taken steps to deposit sums equal to their compensation with the courts. This was intended to have the same effect as the plaintiffs receiving the money.

However, the scheme may prove unworkable depending on future judicial decisions, as the deposit tactic has been repeatedly rejected by a number of courts.

Should the ruling party that supports the Yoon administration be defeated in the April general election, some believe that criticism of the scheme will intensify in South Korea.