SEOUL, March 6 (UPI) — South Korea announced plans Monday to compensate victims of Japanese wartime forced labor, a watershed effort to settle a bitter dispute and improve relations with Tokyo amid mounting security threats from North Korea.
Seoul will create a public foundation to provide payments to 15 Koreans who won lawsuits in 2018 against two Japanese firms that used conscripted labor, its Foreign Ministry said.
The South Korean Supreme Court ruled that the companies — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel — must pay the victims directly, a decision that weakened already-frayed diplomatic ties.
“Cooperation between South Korea and Japan is very important in all areas of diplomacy, economy and security amid the current grave international situation and complex global crisis,” South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said at a news conference announcing the plan.
“I believe that the long-suffering relationship between Korea and Japan should not be left unattended, and the vicious cycle should be broken for the sake of the people in the national interest,” he said.
Seoul is expecting to fund the payments with donations from major South Korean companies that benefited from a 1965 bilateral reparations deal with Tokyo, Park added.
Washington and Tokyo immediately praised the proposal.
In a statement released by the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden called it a “groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies.”
“The United States will continue to support the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea as they take steps to translate this new understanding into enduring progress,” Biden said. “When fully realized, their steps will help us to uphold and advance our shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said at a press conference that the proposal offered a way to “restore a healthy relationship between Japan and South Korea, which had been in a very difficult state due to the 2018 Supreme Court ruling.”
Some representatives of the victims and civic groups immediately criticized the plan, however, with activists calling for it to be withdrawn at a rally outside the Foreign Ministry’s headquarters in Seoul on Monday.
The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions slammed Seoul’s “humiliating foreign policy” toward Japan.
“In the end, from the Japanese government’s point of view, it is a perfect victory in which they have lost nothing,” the group said in a statement.
South Korea’s opposition Democratic Party also called the proposal the “worst kind of submissive diplomacy.”
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has looked to improve ties with Japan since taking office in May. In a speech commemorating the anniversary of the South Korean independence movement last week, Yoon said that Japan “has transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us.”
Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, a period of colonization that ended after World War II.
Diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Seoul took a turn for the worse with the 2018 forced labor Supreme Court decision, which sparked a trade war and led to a widespread boycott of Japanese products in South Korea.
Seoul later threatened to withdraw from a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo before deciding to remain in the pact in 2019 under pressure from Washington
Japan has long contended that all wartime reparations claims were settled by the 1965 bilateral treaty that normalized relations between the two countries.
Park said Monday that Seoul was hoping for Tokyo to respond with “a comprehensive apology from the Japanese government and voluntary contributions from Japanese companies.”