Seoul, Tokyo search for a solution

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Seoul, Tokyo search for a solution

Japan and Korea have begun to explore ways to resolve the wartime forced labor compensation issue amid frayed bilateral ties over the past year, including the creation of a fund providing money for “economic cooperation,” according to a Japanese media report.

Kyodo News reported Monday that an idea being floated involves the Korean government and companies setting up a fund which Japanese companies would chip in to. However, the report cited sources familiar with the bilateral relationship as saying the fund would be in the name of economic cooperation, not compensation for wartime labor victims.

Seoul and Tokyo have struggled to keep bilateral relations from deteriorating amid a trade spat stemming from the Korean top court’s rulings last year ordering Japanese companies to compensate individual victims of forced labor during World War II.

The Japanese government would not make any contribution to this fund, according to the report, but would allow Japanese companies to provide money without contradicting the basic government stance that a 1965 treaty normalizing bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo settled all compensation issues.

However, the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman denied the report of an economic cooperation fund Tuesday.

“The report is not true,” said Kim In-chul, the Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman in a briefing Tuesday. “As said before, we respect the decision of the judicial branch and are working toward enabling relief for the victims and also finding a resolution with the Japanese side taking into consideration bilateral relations.”

He continued, “We are continuing communication for a constructive method toward this direction.”

Likewise, Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese chief cabinet secretary, said the report was “not factually true,” in a press conference the same day.

The Korean Supreme Court made a landmark ruling on Oct. 30, 2018, ordering Nippon Steel to compensate Korean victims of wartime forced labor and made a similar ruling on Nov. 29 against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Tokyo has fiercely protested the rulings, claiming all compensation issues have been resolved through the 1965 bilateral accord, which provided Korea with an economic cooperation fund of $500 million.

However, the Korean Supreme Court acknowledged the illegality of Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule over Korea and recognized that the individual’s right to compensation has not expired. The Japanese companies refused to comply, and the victims have begun the legal process to seize and liquidate the companies’ assets in Korea.

Japan has implemented export restrictions on Korea since July and removed Seoul from its white list of favored trading partners, widely seen as retaliation for the forced labor rulings.

The two countries’ relations are in a sticky situation as trade and security matters, namely the bilateral intelligence-sharing General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) set to expire next month, are interlinked with Tokyo’s call to resolve the forced labor rulings, while Seoul maintains it cannot intervene in the judicial branch because of the separation of powers.

In June, Seoul proposed a joint fund comprised of voluntary contributions by companies from both countries to compensate the wartime forced labor victims, referred to as the one-plus-one plan. The proposal was immediately rejected by Tokyo.

Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha in a press conference last Thursday said on the forced labor issue, “Our basic position is that the judicial process has to proceed along in a sound manner. We are considering the one-plus-one proposal along with various other ideas.”

A Seoul Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday that such a proposal was not exchanged, however, “We hold the fundamental position to narrow our difference and are in a situation where we are working toward finding a resolution.”

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