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PoliticsSouth Korea

S. Korea announces fund to compensate forced labor victims

March 6, 2023

The fund will seek to compensate Koreans who won damages in lawsuits against Japanese companies that enslaved them during Tokyo's 35-year colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

South Korea's Yoon Suk Yeol shakes hands with Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida
Since taking office in May last year, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (l) has been pushing to mend historical grievances with JapanImage: Ahn Jung-won/Yonhap/AP/picture alliance

South Korea on Monday announced plans to compensate victims of Japan's forced wartime labor.

Foreign Minister Park Jin told a televised news conference the victims would be compensated through a local foundation that would be funded by civilian donations.

He said South Korea and Japan were at a "new window of opportunity" to overcome conflicts of the past.

Since taking office in May last year, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has been pushing to mend historical grievances with Japan.

Both South Korea and Japan are US allies in the region, and Washington has pressed both countries to mend ties so they're able to cooperate on countering North Korea's nuclear threat.

Why have relations frayed between S. Korea and Japan?

Even though South Korea and Japan are economically and culturally closely linked, tensions have risen between them because of issues stemming from the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945.

Tensions came to a head in 2018, when South Korean courts ordered two Japanese companies — Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries — to compensate Koreans over the issue of forced labor.

The companies and the Japanese government dismissed the rulings, arguing that all compensation issues had been settled in 1965 when the two countries restored bilateral ties.

The dispute prompted the two governments to downgrade each other's trade status, with Seoul scrapping its military intelligence agreement with Japan.

Talks to resolve tensions continued behind the scenes

South Korea first unveiled the plan of creating a foundation as a way to compensate former forced laborers this January.

Both countries have continued talks in recent months to resolve the dispute over court rulings.

South Korean media reported that a key sticking point was whether the two Japanese companies would contribute money to a South Korean foundation to compensate former victims of forced labor. 

But the plan, when it was unveiled in January, faced fierce backlash from victims and their families.

"It's a complete victory by Japan, which has said it cannot pay a single yen on the forced labor issue," Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer for several victims, said in a Facebook post on Sunday, citing initial media reports of the proposed foundation.

Park Jin said Monday that he thinks the foundation is the "last opportunity," adding that "if we compare it to a glass of water, (I) think that glass is more than half full with water."

"We expect that the glass will be further filled moving forward based on Japan's sincere response," he added.

rm/sri (Reuters, AP)