Now what, Tokyo?

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Now what, Tokyo?

Korea has achieved a meaningful diplomatic feat by making Japan admit that some of the 23 sites for which it sought world heritage status from the United Nations used forced laborers from the Korean Peninsula. Japan has won Unesco World Cultural Heritage Status for 23 industrial sites after last-minute government negotiations over the wording of the registration. During the Unesco committee meeting in Bonn, Germany, Japanese representative Kuni Sato admitted that some Koreans “were brought against their will and were forced to work under severe conditions.” The Japanese foreign minister denied the phrase meant forced labor.

But despite the play on words, the fact that Koreans worked for the Japanese against their will in some of the industrial sites became clear. One stumbling block over historical issues has been removed, raising expectations for ice-breaking momentum for bilateral ties that have been strained for more than two years. Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said it was a valuable outcome from a difficult effort to make historical facts clear.

But it seems as if it is too soon to fall into a congratulatory mood. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said the meaning of hatarakasareta (were forced to work) was different from the phrase kyosei rodo (forced labor). The two governments have had numerous discussions and negotiations on the term, and the differing interpretations raises questions about what Seoul has actually achieved.

China is equally disgruntled. More than 2,000 Chinese were also mobilized to work on industrial sites during the Meiji period. The Beijing government said Japan had not fully expounded on the question of forced labor.

As part of its “measures that allow an understanding that there were a large number of Koreans and others who were brought against their will” to the industrial sites, Japan promised to create a memorial center for the victims.

It is supposed to hand in a specific plan by the end of 2017. The Korean foreign ministry said Japan won’t likely break its international promise. But the provision is not legally binding. It wouldn’t be the first time Tokyo has backtracked on its words on past issues.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 7, Page 30

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