South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speak on the sidelines at the UN General Assembly in September 2022. Photo: Japanese Cabinet Public Relations Office

A March 6 announcement by South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin of a plan to resolve the issue of Korean wartime forced laborers marked a triumph of leadership and strategic decisiveness.

But it was a triumph almost entirely due to Korea and the government of President Yoon Suk-yeol, in contrast to the timidity and political caution displayed by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his government.

News reports have described this as a “deal” between South Korea and Japan to settle the deeply contentious issue, an issue that had sent bilateral relations spiraling to their worst level in many decades.

In reality, this was a unilateral declaration by the Korean government, without any visible Japanese participation, to compensate the surviving men who were forced to work in Japanese mines and factories during the wartime period.

The Korean foreign minister’s statement reflects the deeply held conviction of the Yoon government that it is essential to normalize and improve relations with Japan.

This goal, which Yoon brought along when he took office after his election last spring, has only deepened due to the growing sense of crisis triggered by the Ukraine war, North Korea’s aggressive posture as well as growing concerns about China.

“I think it is the right solution to resolve the pending conundrum and a very courageous political decision on the part of President Yoon,” said former South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, a former envoy to Japan who has played a key role in mediating Korea-Japan relations. “He deserves all the credit for the restoration of important bilateral relations with Japan.”

The Japanese government certainly welcomed the declaration, as did US President Joe Biden.

The Americans have been urging the two countries to settle this problem in order to ease the way to the kind of security cooperation that has become visible in recent months. Joint military exercises for missile defense and other small steps to intensify trilateral coordination are taking place and a resolution of the historical problems may be key to moving ahead.

Officials from the two foreign ministries had been negotiating the core features of this solution since last summer but had failed to bridge key gaps in their positions.

South Korean TV report in 2018 when the original court ruling proclaimed that the government could confiscate Japanese companies’ assets to penalize them for WWII forced labor practices. Photo: YouTube

The Korean government, working with the advice of experts, and in consultation with lawyers representing the victims, came up with the idea of using an existing fund set up by the Korean government in 2014 to offer compensation to “Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan.”

This fund already had significant contributions from the Korean steelmaker POSCO and other Korean public firms that received significant loans and grants from the assistance provided by Japan under the 1965 Japan-Korea Claims Agreement that accompanied the normalization of diplomatic relations.

Two Japanese companies – Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries – had been ordered by Korean courts in 2018 to pay compensation but the Japanese government effectively barred them from doing so, arguing that this violated past treaties.

Using the 2014 fund was a significant concession by the Koreans as it recognizes implicitly the Japanese insistence that this issue was settled in 1965. Importantly, they hope it will preempt a May decision by the Korean courts to seize the assets of the two companies to provide the compensation payments.

Since the summer, talks have tried to forge an agreement between the two governments along these lines.

The South Korean view was that this solution could only work if Japan took two steps: First, the Japanese government needed to tell the Japanese companies that they could contribute to this fund, perhaps even encourage them to do so. Second, the firms, and if possible the Japanese government, needed to offer some form of apology directly to the victims.

The Korean position was born out of both moral conviction and political realities – without the agreement of the victims it would be impossible to gain acceptance of this solution within Korea, and it is not clear the Korean courts would consent to this as a settlement of the suits.

As has become clear in recent rounds of talks between the two foreign ministries, including between Park Jin and Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi on the sidelines of the recent Munich security conference, the Japanese were not willing to yield on either point.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Even though the Koreans made the crucial concession of basing this on the 1965 agreement, Japanese officials continued to claim that an apology and direct payment by the Japanese firms to victims was not acceptable.

This ignores, however, the clear precedent of the agreement reached by Mitsubishi Materials to settle a similar suit by Chinese forced laborers in 2016. The Japanese firm paid out almost $60 million to some 3,765 Chinese who were used as forced laborers during the war.

In the China case, Mitsubishi “expressed its sincere apologies regarding its historical responsibility to the former laborers.” A year earlier, Mitsubishi Materials had also offered an apology in Los Angeles to former American prisoners and their families used as forced laborers.

Park Jin emerged from the talks with Hayashi in Munich to tell Korean media that the talks at the officials’ level had reached their end. The only thing left, he said, was a political decision – clearly pointing toward Prime Minister Kishida.

The declaration issued on March 6 seems driven by the conclusion that they could no longer wait for Kishida, who has consistently wavered under the pressure of Japanese rightwing conservatives to oppose any apology or direct compensation to the workers.

The Korean declaration is a resignation to the reality that compensation will be provided by the Korean side without Japanese money. Japan, said former Foreign Minister Yu, “is free of any pecuniary responsibility” but not “a moral one.”

Japanese officials on Monday, in response to the Korean declaration, alluded to the possibility that the Japanese firms may make “voluntary” contributions. But this seems to refer to the proposal to create a new separate fund that will be formed jointly by Keidanren and their Korean business federation counterparts to fund “future oriented” activities aimed at youth.

Japanese support for this fund will be welcomed by the Koreans and it seems likely to take place. “But it is not a core element” in the decision, explained Yu, who has advised the Yoon administration.

The Yoon government has made the kind of political decision, on a strategic level, that the Kishida administration is so far hesitant to embrace fully.

“I believe that his decision is equivalent to the historic Kim Dae-jung-Obuchi partnership declaration of 1998, which laid the ground for the ensuing good relations between our two countries for the last 25 years,” Yu told Toyo Keizai.

“Of course, the opposition party will surely make an issue and criticize the Yoon government by saying that the agreement is humiliating one. But it is not an ‘agreement’ at all. It is a unilateral Korean government decision to resolve the issue once and for all, taking into consideration the Japanese government position.”

Indeed, the opposition progressive Democratic Party has quickly moved to assail the declaration, echoed in media favorable to that view. Yoon was already under fire for his speech on March 1, an important holiday commemorating Korea’s revolt against Japanese colonial rule.

In that speech, the Korean president eschewed gratuitous attacks on Japan and instead said that “Japan has transformed from a militarist aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us,” and that the two countries should “work together to cope with global challenges.”

Korean backers of this approach are confident that the Yoon government can gain the support of the majority of the Korean public, despite this kind of assault on its patriotic credentials.

One key factor may be whether the victims named in the current lawsuit against the Japanese firms are willing to accept the payments from the new fund. According to well-informed Korean sources, nine out of the fifteen families named in that suit have told the Korean government they are willing to accept the offer and some of the remaining six may also follow.

Those victims are only one small part of a much larger group of litigants who are seeking compensation in a broader class action suit. Whether this fund will deal with them is far from clear at this point.

Lee Choon-shik, a victim of forced labor by Japan during its colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, sits in the Supreme Court in Seoul on October 30, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ed Jones
Lee Choon-shik, a victim of forced labor by Japan during its colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, sits in the Supreme Court in Seoul on October 30, 2018. Photo: AFP / Ed Jones

The greater problem lies with Korean civil society activist groups, some of them deeply hostile to the conservative government, which will oppose this unilateral solution.

Japanese government officials are aware of the potential for this solution to unravel in Korea. They are responding to some extent by preparing to host a visit by Yoon to Japan next month and to invite the Korean leader to attend the G7 summit in Hiroshima.

They have also moved quickly to remove the export controls that slow the approval of licenses to provide key chemicals for semiconductor production in Korea. Those moves have long been on the agenda and saved for this moment.

But Kishida seems unable or unwilling to take the political risk of making sincere personal expressions of regret for Japan’s wartime injustices, and for forced labor in particular. It is no secret that the faction of the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party is opposed to anything that seems to suggest further apology.

The Prime Minister has settled instead for a rather timid offer to reaffirm past Japanese government statements about the war, hardly a badge of courage on his part.

Daniel Sneider is a lecturer of international policy at Stanford University and a former Christian Science Monitor foreign correspondent. This article originally appeared in The Oriental Economist (Toyo Keizai) and is republished with permission.

Follow Daniel Sneider on Twitter at @DCSneider