Yoon Emphasizes Cooperation with Japan, Saying, “We Cannot be Stuck in the Past Forever”

Im Hun-jung/Yonhap via AP
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, foreground, salutes the national flag during a Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on Tuesday.

The administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has finally announced its plan to resolve the issue of lawsuits against Japanese companies regarding former wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula.

The Japanese and Korean governments carefully searched for common ground acceptable to both sides.

According to a South Korean government spokesperson, Yoon said on Monday afternoon that the announcement of the resolution plan was a decision made to move South Korea-Japan relations toward the future despite various difficulties.

On Monday in Seoul, some of the lawsuit plaintiffs protested against the administration, criticizing the government for “humiliating diplomacy.”

The announcement by the South Korean government, which was certain to draw criticism, was apparently based on its judgment that strengthening cooperation between Japan and South Korea was essential to respond to the severe international situation, including the acceleration of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development.

South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported on Monday that Yoon made a phone call to an aide who was cautious about the resolution plan because it could deal a big blow to the administration. Over the phone, Yoon convinced the aide by saying, “With so many pressing concerns regarding the economy and security, we cannot be stuck in the past forever.”

Looking for compromise

The administration of former President Moon Jae-in had effectively left the lawsuit issue unresolved in the name of “respect for judicial decisions.”

The inauguration of the Yoon administration in May last year turned the tide and substantial talks over the issue began between the Japanese and South Korean authorities.

Yoon does not seem greatly inclined to anti-Japanese sentiments, having visited Japan as a boy to see his father, who was a researcher at Hitotsubashi University. Since he was a presidential candidate, Yoon had publicly stated that he would not use diplomacy for domestic politics.

From the beginning, there was a proposal for a Korean foundation to pay the plaintiffs an amount equivalent to the compensation set in the lawsuits. The focus was on financial resources for the fund.

The Korean government asked for donations from the defendant Japanese companies in response to the plaintiff’s request. The Japanese government did not accept the idea, claiming that such donations would effectively be “compensation.”

According to a source close to Yoon, the administration had been inclined at the end of last year to think that “the only way to cover the fund would be through donations from Korean companies.”

However, when the resolution plan was presented at a public debate on Jan. 12, public opinion against it strengthened. In response to this sentiment, the South Korean government pressed Japan to consider donations from Japanese companies in some form, and the two countries were far from reaching an agreement.

In late February, a secret talk was held between representatives from the two countries at a hotel near Incheon Airport in South Korea.

In the end, it appears that a compromise was reached with a plan in which the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) and the Federation of Korean Industries would voluntarily establish an exchange-student scholarship project fund to help build future-oriented Japan-South Korea relations. Apparently, a key aspect in the compromise was that the Japanese government would not oppose the establishment of the project. The defendant Japanese companies are also members of the Keidanren.

A source close to the South Korean government said that the compromise reflects the arguments of both Japanese and South Korean governments.

Diplomatic schedule

Observers said that Yoon hastened to make a decision partly due to his diplomatic schedule. It is believed that Yoon hoped to visit Japan by the end of February and travel to the United States in April, followed by a return visit to Japan for the summit meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized countries to be held in May in Hiroshima to facilitate cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea.

Currently, the governments of Japan and South Korea are making arrangements for Yoon to visit Japan in the second half of next week for a Japan-South Korea summit meeting.

Also, there will be a general election in South Korea in April 2024. It will be difficult to make any moves in politically sensitive Japan-related issues from the second half of this year, when preparations for the election will be in full swing. A source close to Yoon said that this was “last-minute timing” for the decision.