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S. Korea considers plan to pay reparations to WWII forced labor victims instead of Japan

via JTBC News

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    Despite initial demands for Japanese reparations, South Korea has proposed a plan to compensate Koreans who were victims of forced labor during World War II via a domestic fund.

    The plan on was introduced on Thursday in a public hearing by Seoul’s Foreign Ministry. The announcement was derided by victims and their legal representatives, who demanded the original 2018 agreement must be maintained.

    In 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s 2013 ruling on Korean victim reparations from Japanese companies responsible. These companies were identified as Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

    Nippon Steel was ordered to pay 100 million won (approximately $88,000 at the time) in compensation to each of the four victims, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was ordered to pay a maximum of 150 million won (approximately $133,510 at the time) to each of the 28 victims or their families. The lawsuit carried through despite the 1965 Korea-Japan Normalization Treaty — which established “normal” diplomatic relations and $800 million for reparations — as victims maintained the right to damages suits for forced labor.

    In 2020, Nippon Steel attempted an appeal of the ruling to prevent the seizure of their assets but was unsuccessful. South Korean courts began liquidizing seized assets of the companies a year later to begin compensation. 

    In addition to monetary compensation, victims have also demanded official apologies from the Japanese companies responsible.

    The compensation addresses the forced labor and enslavement of approximately 780,000 Koreans during the violent Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 until the end of WWII. 

    However, the compensation solely addresses victims of forced labor, not other crimes such as the sexual enslavement of comfort women

    The news of South Korean compensation and reparations comes as officials attempt to repair relations with Tokyo in light of North Korean aggression. 

    During the National Assembly public hearing, South Korean Foreign Ministry official Seo Min-jung justified the introduced plan by pointing out that the government’s priority is to compensate the forced labor victims as soon as possible. With the event taking place a century ago, a majority of victims have died or are in their 90s. 

    Further, Seo claimed full compensation from the responsible Japanese companies would not be possible due to a lack of assets, as Japanese economic activity has been declining in South Korea. 

    Adding to the victims’ frustrations, Seo declared it “impossible” for Japanese companies to issue a formal apology regarding the event. Instead, the minister emphasized the importance of “accept[ing] the tone of apology expressed in the past and move on,” KBS News reports. 

    The domestic fund would come from the Seoul-based Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan, which would be funded by South Korean firms that have a history of Japanese economic assistance.

    Sim Gyu-sun, the foundation’s chairman, agreed with Seo’s perspective on Japanese compensation, stating, “the victims who have been fighting for a long time know this is impossible.”

    In response, Lim Jae-Sung — the victims’ legal representative since 2018 — argued the South Korean government was ignoring the victims’ voices for their personal agendas. 

    “The South Korean government’s plan is to use the money by South Korean companies like POSCO to remove the rights of the victims,” Lim stated. “Japan does not take on any responsibilities or burdens.”

    “We demand an apology from Japan,” the lawyer continued. “Even if we make a joint fund, we should have 50% of Japan’s financial resources.”

    His reaction to the South Korean officials’ plan was supported by the victims, who displayed clear opposition by yelling at the panelists during the hearing. The victims also stated these decisions should require multiple public discussions rather than sudden declarations made by government officials. 

    Further, Lim revealed ongoing similar cases against Japanese companies could result in a total compensation amount of over 15 billion won (approximately $12.1 billion). The lawyer questioned if Korean companies would be required to pay this complete settlement originally required from Japan. 

    Lee Won-duk, professor of the Department of Japanese Studies at Kookmin University, compared the current issue with that of the 2015 Comfort Women Agreement, which continues to stand despite the victims’ wishes. 

    “If the consent of the victims is not premised, if Japanese companies do not participate, or if the victims refuse to receive the (compensation money) paid by the foundation, a complete solution is impossible,” Lee argued.

    Park Hong-gyu, professor of the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Korea University, stated in agreement: “The government has tried speaking for the victims against Japan. It’s no longer about persuading Japan, but a place to persuade domestic victims.”

    Both professors were met with strong disagreement from victims and the hearing’s audience, who shouted “traitor” at the professors and requested that they stop speaking. 

    Protestors also took a stand against the South Korean officials’ plan. 

    “This money is not the main issue. We need an apology from Japan,” a representative strongly stated. 

    “Is this all our ancestors’ blood is worth?” another protestor asked the panelists of the public hearing.


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