Korean POWs left with bitternessFor the first time in history, a private Japanese corporation, Mitsubishi, has apologized to U.S. POWs forced to toil in enemy mines during World War II. Despite how James Murphy, the emotionally charged veteran who called the apology “sincere” and “humbling” upon its reception, characterizes the firm’s unprecedented gesture, it has not only disappointed but also discomforted Korean POWs, who number almost as many as the American counterparts but are overlooked in the solemn ceremony, despite resonating voices for atonement.
The company has further expressed interest in extending apologies to other POWs, including the British and Chinese POWs, all except Korea. When pressed for reasons, Mitsubishi invokes the 1965 Claims Agreement between Korea and Japan, arguing that Japan paid damages. The doctrine of clausula rebus sic stantibus, however, stipulates otherwise. A legal doctrine rendering treaties inapplicable in case of a fundamental change in circumstances, the customary international law protects parties unaware of details regulated in agreement at the signing of treaty.
When Korea concluded the 1965 treaty, it remained uninformed of such forced labor. The Japanese government’s unwillingness to detail wartime horrors, which stripped the Korean government’s investigation of its muscle to probe into inhumane practices, contributed to such unawareness. Forced labor victimization revealed after the treaty signals a “fundamental change” in circumstances. The customary international law thereby affords a new interpretation and application of the treaty. Enmities aside, the two states’ parties should discuss specific procedures. Whatever the outcome, the agonized souls in Korea deserve recognition of their anguish.
by Choi Si-young, Former deputy editor-in-chief of Yonsei International Affairs Review at Yonsei University