Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Tokyo — Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula ended more than seven decades ago, yet that legacy still roils everyday politics on both sides.

South Korea and Japan, major trading partners and both US military allies, have been at loggerheads over what constitutes proper contrition and compensation for Koreans conscripted to work in factories and mines that supplied Japan’s imperial war machine, and those euphemistically called “comfort women”, who were forced to work in military brothels.

Japan contends all claims were settled under a 1965 bilateral treaty and a fund set up in 2015. Seoul argues Japan has not done enough. Some of Japan’s largest companies have been dragged into the fray, and the situation is affecting the two countries’ ability to co-operate on security and other issues.

What are the roots of the labour dispute?

Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were conscripted during the 1910-1945 colonial period to work, often in brutal conditions, at dozens of Japanese companies. At the time of a 1965 treaty that established diplomatic ties between the two countries, Japan paid the equivalent of $300m ($2.4bn in today’s money) and extended $200m in low-interest loans on the understanding that all claims were “settled completely and finally”.

Then-struggling South Korea invested the money in industries that eventually helped turn it into an economic powerhouse. However, South Korean court rulings since late 2018 have said some conscripted workers were not properly compensated for their emotional pain and suffering. 

What is the fallout for the companies?

South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled in 2018 against two of Japan’s largest companies: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was ordered to pay as much as $134,000 to each of 10 claimants, while Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal was ordered to pay $88,000 to each of four plaintiffs. A South Korean court then ordered the seizure of shares valued at about $356,000 that Nippon Steel has in a joint venture with South Korean steelmaker Posco, a move Tokyo calls unlawful. These assets could be liquidated soon, something that Japan has said would inflame tensions.

What has Japan done to push back?

Japan rejected a South Korean proposal for a joint compensation fund to resolve the dispute, seeing it as a breach of international law and their 1965 treaty. The Japanese government removed South Korea from a so-called “white list” of trusted countries that benefit from less stringent trade checks. That followed a move to restrict exports of materials vital to South Korean manufacturers of semiconductors and computer displays.

And South Korea?

South Korea removed Japan from its list of most trusted trading partners. Seoul said it would withdraw from a military intelligence-sharing agreement, but later backed down in the face of heavy US pressure. But in July, South Korea revived a complaint it had filed with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2019 over Japan’s trade restrictions, after describing them as “politically motivated”. Tokyo has tried to block the WTO inquiry, saying its measures fall under a national security exemption.

Are other Japanese companies affected?

There are more than a dozen such cases pending in South Korea involving about 70 companies, according to the Japanese ministry of foreign affairs. An estimated 725,000 Korean workers were sent to mainland Japan, Sakhalin and the southern Pacific islands to work in the mining, construction, and shipbuilding industries, according to a Stanford University research paper. Most of the former labourers have died, but some of their family members have sought legal standing to sue.

What about the “comfort women” controversy?

That is also flaring again after a private botanical garden in Pyeongchang, east of Seoul, set up a memorial showing a man thought to resemble Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prostrating himself in apology before a seated young woman. Historians say anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women — many of them Korean — were forced into service in Japan’s military brothels. There are fewer than two dozen known survivors in South Korea.

In 2015, Japan and South Korea announced a “final and irreversible” agreement that came with a personal apology from Abe as well as about $8m for a compensation fund. But many South Koreans opposed the deal, which was signed without consulting the victims, some of whom refused the money in protest. Under President Moon Jae-in, who took office in 2017, South Korea shut down the fund, angering Tokyo.

After that, South Korea’s National Assembly speaker Moon Hee-sang said in an interview with Bloomberg News that Japan’s then Emperor Akihito — whom the speaker called “the son of the main culprit of war crimes” — should hold hands with the women and personally apologise. Japan demanded an apology and retraction.

Has Japan apologised before?

Several times, yet many in South Korea have doubts about its sincerity. In 1990, Akihito expressed his “deep regret” for colonial rule. In 1993 Japan issued the Kono Statement, in which it offered “its sincere apologies and remorse” to the comfort women. The statement has been Japanese government policy since.

The apologies have been undercut by comments from leading Japanese politicians seen as whitewashing the militarist past, and visits made to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the country’s wartime military leaders — including class A war criminals — are among those honoured.

South Korea has also been angered by what it sees as Japan’s repeated failure to acknowledge that the human rights of Korean conscripted workers were abused at Hashima, one of a group of sites recognised by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation as representing Japan’s industrial revolution.

How bad can things get?

Japan-South Korea friction has never escalated to the point where it has severely damaged economic or military ties, though some have warned about dangers associated with the recurring feud. Nevertheless, Moon has expressed willingness to work with Japan in some areas, including the international push to end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.


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