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South Korea plans to end forced labor dispute with Japan

yesAnkind, a kid in 1940s Korea who dreams of becoming a teacher. When her class teacher suggested that she go to Japan to study under the country’s colonial rulers, she enthusiastically agreed. The 13-year-old forged the necessary documents and left her home in Jeollanam-do. She was not immediately sent to a pledge school in Japan, but to an aircraft factory run by Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi. “I worked almost to death and never got paid,” she recalls. Her last hope, she said, is that “the offender will sincerely apologize before my death”.

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She can at least get some cash. On March 6, the government of South Korean President Yoon Hee-yeol announced the establishment of a new compensation fund for victims of Japanese wartime forced labor or their surviving relatives. Details — including, crucially, whether Mitsubishi or any Japanese company will invest — are unclear. However, Mr Yin hopes it will end a dispute that has marred relations between the two countries for decades, even as U.S. pressure and concerns over China and North Korea have brought the two closer. US President Joe Biden hailed the announcement as “a groundbreaking new chapter in cooperation and partnership”.

It follows South Korea’s Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that two Japanese companies, Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, must compensate South Koreans forced to work at their factories or their surviving relatives. The Japanese government objected, saying the issue was settled by a treaty the two countries signed in 1965. An impasse ensued between the two sides, with the South Korean assets of Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi likely to be seized by the courts. Officials in Seoul and Tokyo have been working behind closed doors to patch things up since Mr Yoon took power last May.

The compensation fund will be funded largely or entirely by the South Korean government. South Korean companies receiving funds under the 1965 treaty, which included $800 million in grants and low-interest loans to South Korea, will be encouraged but not forced to contribute. Japanese companies can do so on a voluntary basis. In the meantime, instead of repeating its apology, the Japanese government will repeat its “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” it issued in 1998 for the “great damage and suffering” caused by Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea from 1910-45.

The formula reflects Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s feeling that he cannot compromise. He worries about upsetting the rights of his Liberal Democratic Party, which opposes any new apology. Mr Kishida hailed the fund as “a return to a healthy relationship”. Within hours, Japan’s trade ministry announced bilateral talks to lift controls on exports of semiconductor manufacturing materials to South Korea that have been in place since 2019. (South Korea said it would suspend related complaints to the World Trade Organization.) On March 9, the two countries announced that Mr. Yun would pay an official visit to Japan next week.he may also be welcomed as a guest G7 Summit held in Hiroshima in May.

The South Korean leader still has to sell his solution at home. His push to improve bilateral relations is based on calls on South Koreans to weigh the benefits of cooperating with Japan against their displeasure with past abuses. On March 1, a day to mark North Korea’s independence, Mr Yoon said Japan had transformed from “a militaristic aggressor in the past to a partner sharing the same universal values”. But he may not be able to appease victims of forced labor in Japan or his political opponents.

Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer representing 15 plaintiffs in the case of Nippon Steel’s use of forced labor, argued that for the fund to work as intended, each would have to give up their right to seek compensation from the Japanese company. Some of them, he suggested, would insist that Nippon Steel itself apologize and pay the price. “Without an apology, without a single yen, how can we accept it?” he asked.

Most South Koreans want to improve relations with Japan. However, a recent poll showed that 64 percent believed further apologies from Japan and an investigation into its past misconduct were prerequisites. And Yoon’s naysayers would stoke that sentiment. Opposition leader Lee Jae-myung accused the government of “treating victims of forced labor as if they were a stumbling block to improving relations”. In 2015, the two countries reached a “final and irreversible settlement” over South Korean women’s forced wartime sexual slavery in Japan, which was overturned by largely identical allegations.

Protesters against the deal gathered outside Seoul City Hall as night fell on March 6. The candlelight language denounced Mr Yin’s “humiliating pro-Japan diplomacy” and US support for it. The big question is whether Mr Yoon has done more to calm the anger, or is adding fuel to the fire.

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