Can the South Korea-Japan Forced Labor Deal Last?

March 13, 2023 Topic: South Korea Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: South KoreaJapanForced LaborGreat Power CompetitionChina

Can the South Korea-Japan Forced Labor Deal Last?

Washington’s quick response to the announcement suggests it is trying to lock the agreement in place, showing how Washington views South Korean and Japanese cooperation as critical for its agenda in Northeast Asia.

As soon as the South Korean government announced a tentative deal to solve its dispute with Japan over World War II-era forced labor, American officials and foreign policy experts celebrated a new step forward for cooperation between U.S. allies. But not so fast. 

President Joe Biden's quick response to the announcement suggests the United States is trying to lock this agreement in place, showing how Washington views South Korean and Japanese cooperation as critical for its agenda in Northeast Asia. Biden called it a “groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies” and said he “look[s] forward to continuing to strengthen and enhance the trilateral ties between the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the United States.”

Victor Cha, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on MSNBC that it will help get Seol and Tokyo to cooperate on “everything from their support of Ukraine, defense in the Taiwan Straits, to, of course, North Korea’s unending ballistic missile tests.”

But it may be too early to say if this deal will stand and if South Koreans will accept it. Past attempts to resolve historical debates between South Korea and Japan have floundered. The proposal by the unpopular administration of President Yoon Suk-youl is already facing criticism. The progressive Hankyoreh paper criticized the deal in an editorial, saying it undermined the South Korean Constitution and Supreme Court, which ruled that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel should compensate victims of forced labor. The paper raised concerns about the awkward timing, with the announcement coming just a week after the March 1 holiday commemorating South Korean resistance to the Japanese occupation. Opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-Myung has called for the proposal to be withdrawn.

Activist groups and civic organizations compared Yoon’s proposal with the Park Geun-hye administration’s 2015 deal, which was meant to address the controversy over Japan’s use of sex slaves during the war but only resulted in protests outside of Japanese consulates and further poisoned the two countries’ relations.

"Why is the victim country trying so hard to exempt the perpetrator nation from responsibility,” said Lee Na-young, head of the Korean Council.

This gets to the crux of the criticism of the proposal. The foundation compensating the victims would be funded almost entirely—if not wholly—by South Korean entities. The two Japanese companies implicated in the Supreme Court case have stood firm, with the backing of the Japanese government, against paying. Two of the few surviving victims said they did not wish to receive Korean money and demanded Japan acknowledge their suffering.

As of this writing, surveys have yet to be released on the plan's popularity. Many South Koreans have expressed support; they are tired of having their country’s foreign policy constrained by a tragic history that cannot be undone. 

Seok Dong-Hyeon, a lawyer and the secretary general of the Peaceful Unification Advisory Council, wrote on Facebook that the “exhausting controversy and damage” caused by a single ruling by a few judges acting by themselves was “too great.” The Choson Ilbo’s editorial stated the need to cooperate to address the North Korean threat and Chinese hegemony and pointed out that previous Korean Democratic Party presidents like Kim Dae-Jung had welcomed a “new era” of relations with Japan.

Positive relations between South Korea and Japan cannot be maintained in the long run if it is a politicized issue; a new South Korean president in 2027 or 2032 may demand Japan apologize for its history.

Lawyers representing the victims of forced labor say they will persist in bringing lawsuits and attempting to collect compensation from the companies, including through attempts to liquidate Mitsubishi’s and Nippon Steel’s assets in Japan. The Yoon administration could not easily force an independent judiciary to block such a case just because of an agreement it made at the executive level, which will not be ratified in South Korea’s opposition-controlled legislature. If a court does rule against Japan again, then what?

It is clear that this proposal is being championed by Yoon and the United States to further the foreign policy goals of the China hawks within the American and South Korean administrations. But it does not address the needs of the victims who took the case to pursue justice. While it would be impossible to compel a foreign country or its leadership to apologize with sincerity, there are some things Japan could do to make the deal easier for the Korean public to swallow.

At a minimum, Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel should partially fund the settlement. Mitsubishi agreed to compensate over 3,000 Chinese victims of forced labor in 2016. They are still in the process of completing payments to some of the victims even as they refuse to compensate the much smaller group of Korean plaintiffs. Although it is likely some South Koreans would still not be satisfied, at least it would be easier for Yoon to make the case that his administration had extracted some kind of concessions from Japan.

As it is, it seems like South Korea gave in to most of the Japanese demands. South Koreans are getting no compensation as a result of the forced labor case, although Japan and South Korea are both going to be jointly funding a scholarship program for youths. The Japan Business Federation (Keidanren) will pay for part of it. Still, the money isn’t coming from the implicated corporations (except in so much as they are dues-paying members of the Keidanren) and isn’t going to the victims. South Korea will be reinstated to Japan’s trade whitelist, but that is just a return to the status quo.

Japan got South Korea to give up on almost everything with only a token scholarship program, the kind of thing two amicable nations might create in ordinary times just as a show of goodwill.

Yoon views the Korea-Japan-U.S. relationship as critical for their mutual foreign policy interests. He must calculate that there is more for Korea to gain from harmonizing relations than from trying to extract more in negotiations. But why doesn’t Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida feel the same? Why doesn’t he give in to some of Korea’s demands for the sake of the trilateral relationship?

There can be a debate about which side is most to blame for things deteriorating—and a convincing case can be made that South Korea’s unforgiving attitude may be the primary cause—but there needs to be mutual trust. In order for there to be healthy relations, two countries need to both make contributions and compromises.

Mitchell Blatt is the Founder of the US-Korea Policy Project and a frequent contributor to The National Interest.

Image: Flickr/White House.