By Sakurai Norio
SEOUL – Research fellow Lee Woo-youn at South Korea’s Naksungdae Institute of Economic Research, who studies the issues of so-called requisitioned workers and comfort women and is the co-author of a book called “Anti-Japan Tribalism,” which became a bestseller in Japan and South Korea, sat down for an interview with the Sankei Shimbun. He analyzes that the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling issued three years ago ordering Japanese companies to compensate former South Korean requisitioned workers reflects a prejudice in the South Korean society that “Japan is an absolute evil.” He also said the requisitioned workers issue can be resolved if the South Korean president exercises leadership.
Lee has studied the actual conditions of Korean laborers who worked at coal mines in Japan before World War II. He criticizes the court rulings on the former requisitioned workers issued in October and November in 2018 ordering Japanese companies to make compensation, saying, “The rulings misunderstand facts in the first place.”
He says the rulings are premised on a false image widely spread in the South Korean society that South Korean workers were forcibly taken to Japan, deprived of freedom, and abused like slaves under the supervision of gun-toting Japanese Imperial Army soldiers. He points out, “What is important for the judge is not truth but the allegation supported by the largest number of people at the time of judgment.”
The rulings defined requisition as illegal labor forced as an extension of the illegal annexation of Korea. But Lee refutes that the annexation of Korea was implemented legally and requisition was also done according to legal procedures.
But solutions that prevent actual harm from being inflicted on Japanese firms need to be quickly presented in the present situation where the finalized rulings are worsening the Japan-South Korea relationship. Lee says it is “realistic” to establish a foundation centered on South Korean companies which benefited from Japan’s economic assistance associated with the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims. He also says Japanese companies can voluntarily join the foundation but it is unreasonable for Seoul to require them to do so.
Lee also warns that even though Japan apologizes or contributes funds, South Korea will only bring up another historical issue.
South Korea concluded under President Roh Moo-hyun that the South Korean government is responsible for the requisitioned worker issue. This makes Lee believe that if a politician with strong leadership emerges and shows determination, saying, “We will solve this issue without making further requests to Japan,” the South Korean public would understand and the issue could be resolved.
Lee criticizes that the current situation was protracted by Japan’s easy attitude–the belief that if it acknowledges and apologizes for historical issues even half-heartedly, like the statement made by Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei in 1993 to acknowledge that comfort women were forcibly recruited, South Korea would accept the apologies and the issues would be resolved. On the other hand, he commends as a “diplomatic achievement” Japan’s upholding its stance that the requisitioned workers issue had been resolved by the Japan-ROK claims agreement since the launch of the government led by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.
Since December 2019, Lee has been staging demonstrations every week to call for the removal of the comfort women statue built in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul by a group supporting former comfort women. On Oct. 27, he staged the 101st demonstration.
Lee sees comfort women statues as a “symbol of South Korea’s distortion of history” and says his demonstrations are intended to raise a question about the two-dimensional historical view that “Japan is evil and South Korea is good,” which underlies the comfort women issue. He is also planning to stage a demonstration by traveling to the German city of Berlin, where a comfort woman statue was newly erected last year.