The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has not taken corrective measures to deal with the issue of lawsuits involving South Korean former wartime requisitioned workers who were mobilized from the Korean Peninsula. It is unacceptable for the administration to leave the situation to deteriorate, as it threatens the foundation of the bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea.
South Korea has completed procedures to seize Nippon Steel Corp.’s assets based on a South Korean Supreme Court ruling that ordered the company to pay compensation to former requisitioned workers. The assets will be converted into cash after a court order to sell them. Actual harm to a Japanese company is a serious matter.
The Japanese government intends to take countermeasures if the assets are converted into cash. It warns South Korea that Seoul’s action could have a serious impact on Japan-South Korea relations.
Emphasizing efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution to the issue, the South Korean government expressed its stance of seeking concessions from the Japanese side, saying that it expects the Japanese government to respond to the issue in a more positive and sincere manner.
If selling off the assets goes ahead in the coming several months, Japan-South Korea relations could deteriorate to a point of extreme difficulty. The problem is not limited to a single company, but involves the cooperative relationship between Japan and South Korea itself since their normalization of diplomatic relations in 1965. To what extent does the Moon administration understand that?
The 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between the two countries stipulates that the problem of the claims was resolved “completely and finally.” South Korea’s past administrations have considered the treatment of former requisitioned workers as one of the subjects of the agreement.
However, the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court rulings recognized the right of former requisitioned workers to demand compensation from the standpoint of Japan’s colonial rule being “illicit.” Under the pretext of “separation of powers,” the Moon administration has postponed resolving the issue for nearly two years.
Underlying the problem is an erroneous perception on the South Korean side that former requisitioned workers were forcibly taken away and made to work like slaves. There has been a distortion of the historical fact that workers were mobilized on the Korean Peninsula based on law, and many people voluntarily applied for it.
A promise made between nations cannot be violated by judicial decisions within one country and the ideological position of its administration. If this is the case, stable diplomatic relations will be undermined. If it is necessary to pay compensation to former requisitioned workers, the Moon administration should take responsibility to implement the payment as past South Korean administrations did.
The Moon administration also has maintained a hard-line stance on Japan’s tighter export controls toward South Korea. Rather than settling the dispute through bilateral dialogue, it has prioritized the World Trade Organization mediation process, thus aggravating the conflict.
It must not be forgotten that the security environment in East Asia is becoming increasingly severe as North Korea is improving its nuclear and missile capabilities. Japan and South Korea share the common task of containing Pyongyang’s threat and maintaining regional stability. Worsening the bilateral relationship only benefits North Korea.
— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Aug. 7, 2020.