[Editorial] Addressing the wartime forced labor issue

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[Editorial] Addressing the wartime forced labor issue

The Yoon Suk Yeol administration plans to present to Japan a package to resolve the sticking point of compensating for forced wartime labor possibly within the month. The plan has been relayed during working-level discussions between Korea and Japan on Dec. 26. The possible removal of a long-standing stumbling block to bilateral relations is timely amid intensified nuclear and missile threats from North Korea and the strategic contest between the United States and China.

The new Korean government has taken strenuous efforts to mend bilateral ties. The two leaders briefly met in November followed by a visit by Foreign Minister Park Jin to Japan in December. The foreign ministry held private-public council meetings in August and September, while Park met with the victims in September and attended a meeting on wartime forced labor in December to persuade the plaintiffs.

But its way of persuading victims after packaging a compromise deal and the idea of having Korean companies compensate on behalf of Japanese companies could be controversial. The idea being floated so far is to set up a fund and have companies like Posco — which benefited from the packaged reparations for colonial rule in the form of economic aid in 1965 — compensate surviving victims of forced labor on behalf of Japanese companies. Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries ordered by the Korean Supreme Court to pay damages to Korean victims also would be asked to make contribution.

But the deal can hardly work out unless victims agree to it. Although improving ties with Japan is urgent, the process must not be rushed by neglecting persuasion work on victims. If victims are not happy, the issue could become politically sabotaged and put bilateral relation into greater danger. So the government must do its utmost to persuade the victims.

For the fund design to work, the Japanese government and companies must apologize and have Japanese companies join the fund. Through the summits and ministerial and working-level meetings, Tokyo reportedly shows some signs of change. But its final position is yet to be known.

For a successful resolution of the forced labor issue, the two countries must broaden various channels to improve mutual understanding and communication. Korea and Japan also must work to prevent internal politics from hampering with diplomatic affairs and improve relationship through cooperation and trust infrastructure to address their common challenge.
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