New forced labor solution is worked on

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New forced labor solution is worked on

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday it will “closely consult” with Japan on various ways to resolve the wartime forced labor issue, including a new proposal by victims and their representatives to establish a joint consultative body to find a solution.

On Monday, lawyers and civic groups representing the victims held press conferences simultaneously in Seoul and Tokyo and proposed establishing a bilateral consultative body to find a genuine solution to the wartime forced labor issue following Supreme Court rulings in 2018.

This is the first time that the victims have put forth a plan following landmark Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 ordering two Japanese companies - Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal in late October and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries the following month - to compensate victims of forced labor during World War II. The rulings have been strongly protested by Tokyo.

They proposed the joint consultative panel include Korean and Japanese lawyers and scholars as well as representatives of both the political and corporate sectors of the two countries.

Korean legal representatives of forced labor victims and civic groups held a press conference at the headquarters of Minbyun, or Lawyers for a Democratic Society, in Seocho District, southern Seoul. Shiro Kawakami, a Japanese attorney representing forced labor victims, held a press conference in Tokyo the same day.

The consultations should be held on the basis that the Japanese government and related companies acknowledge and apologize for “human rights violations” against the victims, according to the victims’ legal representatives.

“The Japanese government and companies accepting and apologizing for human rights violations, a fact recognized both in Korea and Japanese courts, needs to be the starting point to resolve the issue,” the victims’ legal team said in a statement.

“For the problem to be completely resolved, the Korean government has to take responsibility and fulfill its role,” they said.

Seoul “didn’t properly resolve the forced labor issue in the bilateral claims agreement [with Japan], and after that has been negligent in restoring the victims’ rights, and should have a moral obligation.”

A proper solution, according to the lawyers and civic groups, would be comprised of the perpetrator, the Japanese government and companies, apologizing for the forced labor issue; compensation as evidence of the apology; and education on the matter to serve as a lesson for future generations.

However, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga in an interview with BS Fuji TV Monday evening shot down the proposal to establish a joint consultative body and said that Tokyo is “not at all interested” in the plan.

The Korean Foreign Ministry in a statement to reporters Wednesday said, “The government is open to discussing various reasonable solutions regarding the forced labor issue while respecting the decision of the judicial branch and taking into consideration the victims’ rights and bilateral relations between Korea and Japan.”

Noting the proposal to establish a Korea-Japan joint consultative body, the ministry said it will “continue to listen to various opinions from across the board, including on this proposal, and closely consult with Japan to find a resolution to the issue.”

Unlike previous proposals to resolve the forced labor compensation issue that came from Korea alone, this plan to create a joint consultative body is the first to involve civic groups and legal representatives of both countries.

Last June, the Korean Foreign Ministry proposed a joint fund comprised of voluntary contributions from the two countries’ companies to compensate the forced labor victims, a plan immediately rejected by Tokyo. Since last July, Japan implemented export restrictions on Korea, widely seen as retaliation for the Korean court rulings on the forced labor issue as well as Seoul’s dismantling of a deal to compensate victims of sexual slavery during World War II.

National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang, who visited Tokyo in November, expanded on this plan and in December submitted his so-called one-plus-one bill proposing to create a foundation to raise a 300 billion won ($256.7 million) fund made up of voluntary contributions by Korean and Japanese companies and members of the public to compensate up to 1,500 victims of forced labor.

This bill, which went through various drafts, has received mixed responses and criticism that it only focused on the compensation aspect rather than a true apology.

Japan maintains that all compensation issues were settled under a 1965 bilateral claims agreement. Japanese companies have refused to compensate forced labor victims following the Korean Supreme Court ruling, and the victims have been stepping up legal procedures to seize the companies’ assets in Korea.

Tokyo has warned it will retaliate if the Japanese companies’ assets in Korea are liquidated, which could contribute to a further downward spiraling of bilateral relations.

Creating a joint consultative body, with the backing of the victims, could potentially halt the liquidation proceedings, according to the legal representatives.

Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a bilateral summit in China last month for the first time in 15 months and, while agreeing to continue dialogue, did not make any progress on the forced labor issue and trade spat.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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