Victims of Japan’s Wartime Forced Labour to Receive Compensation from South Korea
South Korea and Japan have agreed to a controversial proposal under which the former will compensate its own citizens who were made to work in Japanese factories during World War Two.
The move has been seen as an attempt by the two nations to resolve a colonial dispute that has been an obstacle to their relations.
Both countries released statements to this effect on Monday, hailing the proposal as having the potential to be a major breakthrough.
However, some critics in South Korea have raised objections to the deal, arguing that it fails to hold Japan accountable. Victims of the situation have also expressed dissatisfaction with the arrangement.
Protesters in Seoul gathered outside the country's foreign ministry on Monday to voice their outrage against the government's decision concerning victims of Japan's colonisation of the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945. During this time, many Koreans were forced to work in Japanese factories and mines.
The current South Korean government has proposed that companies from the country pay into a public fund for victims, rather than continuing the previous administrations' attempts to demand reparations from Tokyo. Japan has welcomed this new approach put forward by Seoul.
South Korea's Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that Japanese companies must compensate 15 individuals who were victims of forced labour. However, Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel were among the companies that refused to obey the ruling, leading to heightened tension between the two countries.
The newly elected South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has, however, been attempting to bring all sides closer together, with the United States also pushing for better relations. US President Joe Biden dubbed the deal as "ground-breaking" on Monday.
The South Korean government is proposing that companies who benefited from a 1965 post-war treaty will make donations to a fund of $3m (£2.5m). This money will be delivered to the families of the 15 original plaintiffs affected, with only three of them still alive.
Foreign Minister Park Jin of South Korea has announced a proposal to break the ongoing cycle of animosity between the two countries ahead of a visit by Japan's foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi. Park expressed hope that Japan would respond positively to the plan with voluntary contributions to a public fund by Japanese companies, and a comprehensive apology. Describing the situation as "more than half full," he said the plan could benefit both countries.
Hayashi welcomed the proposal and said his government would permit domestic companies to provide support to the fund. He also expressed hope for increased political and cultural exchanges between the neighbors. However, South Korea's Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae, and Gender Equality Minister Chung Hyun-back have all declared that they would not accept the money.
Groups representing plaintiffs in Korea have criticised a deal in which the South Korean government and Japanese firms agreed to a settlement for victims of wartime forced labour.
In a statement, lawyers for the victims said that the Korean government had effectively provided immunity to the accused Japanese firms from legal obligations.
Yang Geum-deok, one of the victims, said, "I won't take money that seems like the result of begging. You must apologise first and then work through everything else."
South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung said that this deal was "the biggest humiliation and stain in diplomatic history".
It is yet to be seen if any of the Japanese firms named in the 2018 court ruling will provide voluntary contributions.
Both Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel declined to comment on the deal, referencing earlier announcements that the issue of wartime payment was addressed in the 1965 treaty. This treaty included about $800m in grants and low-cost loans as reparations. Tokyo affirms that it has dealt with all the claims from the colonial era, yet Seoul has long argued against this.
A new deal between Japan and South Korea is expected to enable the two countries to collaborate more closely on security, as they face increasing threats from North Korea and China.
The deal is set to overcome a major obstacle in their relationship, which has been marred by a series of bilateral disputes since 1945 - the most prominent of which is the issue of compensation for Korean women who were enslaved by Japan in wartime brothels.
In 2015, the two countries signed an agreement to address the "comfort women" dispute, resulting in a Japanese apology and the creation of a 1 billion yen ($7.3m) fund for survivors. However, tensions rose in 2018 after Seoul decided to dissolve the fund, citing that it did not take into account victims' concerns.