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U.S. allies South Korea and Japan move closer to resolve forced labor feud

Kim Hong-Ji/AP
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, center, leaves after a briefing announcing a plan on Monday to resolve a dispute over compensating people forced to work under Japan's 1910-1945 occupation of Korea, at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea Monday, March 6, 2023.

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea announced on Monday a plan to compensate victims of forced labor under Japan's colonization through a government foundation with funds from South Korean companies.

Foreign Minister Park Jin said the foundation under the Interior Ministry will collect voluntary donations and pay the compensations in place of Japanese companies that used South Korean labor.

Reparations for forced labor during the 1910-45 colonial period is one of many historical issues that have strained the relationship between the key U.S. allies in Asia.

In 2018, South Korea's Supreme Court ruled in three separate cases that victims are entitled to unpaid salaries and compensations for forced labor from the Japanese companies they worked for, Nippon Steel Corporation and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

The companies refused to comply, arguing the 1965 agreement between the governments of South Korea and Japan fully and finally settled the issue of reparations for colonial era damages, and appealed the ensuing court orders to liquidate their assets in South Korea.

In response to the ruling, the Japanese government in 2019 imposed export control on key materials for semiconductor and display production – key industries in South Korea – and took South Korea off the list of preferred trade partners.

The South Korean government, in return, threatened to end a military information sharing agreement called GSOMIA, while the public started a widespread boycott of Japanese products.

President Yoon Suk Yeol has vowed to "normalize" the soured relationship since his inauguration in May 2022.

Last week, in the ceremony commemorating the 1919 independence movement against colonial Japan, he said Japan has now become an economic and security partner that shares common values.

"Especially, in overcoming security crises like North Korean nuclear threats, trilateral cooperation between South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. is now more important than ever before," he said. He made no mention of historical disputes.

Foreign Minister Park Jin also stressed the importance of cooperation with Japan at Monday's press conference. "For the national interest and the people of South Korea, we need to end the vicious cycle."

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida welcomed South Korea's proposal, saying it is a "return to a healthy relationship" between the neighboring countries.

President Joe Biden hailed the plan as "a critical step to forge a future for the Korean and Japanese people that is safer, more secure, and more prosperous," in a statement released shortly after the announcement in Seoul.

Whether the resolution can proceed as proposed, however, remains unclear. Victims and civic groups have strongly opposed the plan, criticizing the lack of apology and contribution from the Japanese companies and government.

Yang Geum-deok, who worked at a Mitsubishi factory as a teenager in the 1940s, said an apology is the key to a proper resolution, not a fund collected in South Korea "while someone else is at fault."

"I would rather starve to death than take that money," she said at a press conference on Monday.

Activists called the plan "humiliating" and inattentive to the victims' voices. Lawyer Lim Jae-sung, who represents the victims, said all three surviving victims of the three Supreme Court cases are opposed to the government's plan and will continue to pursue liquidation of Japanese companies' assets.

There are nearly 150,000 South Korean victims of forced labor, according to a government committee. As of January, 67 lawsuits against Japanese companies for reparation are awaiting a verdict.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.