South Korea has made a decisive push to settle a dispute with Japan over compensation for former Korean forced labourers. Secretary of State Park Jin announced a plan in Seoul on Monday whereby victims or their survivors would be compensated through a public fund.

Private donations should flow into this fund. Direct payments from Japanese companies to the victims are therefore not planned. During Japan’s colonial rule over Korea (1910-45) and World War II, Japanese companies were estimated to have forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans to work.

While Japan and the US welcomed the plans, they were heavily criticized by various civic groups in South Korea. Loud protests erupted in front of the Foreign Ministry in Seoul. Seoul hopes the current solution can end the conflicts with Japan, Park said. “I think this is the last chance.”

US Secretary of State welcomes the plans

Japan is keen to strengthen its “strategic partnership” with Seoul to better deal with international challenges including the growing military threat posed by North Korea, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in parliament. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the plans as a “historic announcement” by the governments in Seoul and Tokyo. The trilateral cooperation is central “for a free and open Indo-Pacific region”.

The relationship between the two neighboring countries, which are important allies of the USA, is heavily burdened by historical conflicts. In addition to demands for compensation for former forced labourers, it also deals with the treatment of victims of sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the World War.

Tokyo sees the issue of compensation as settled by a 1965 bilateral treaty. However, the dispute intensified after the Supreme Court in South Korea ordered two Japanese companies to pay compensation and lost wages to former forced laborers in 2018.

Observers are now expecting South Korean companies to be asked to donate to the fund. The focus could therefore be on companies that had benefited from the 1965 normalization agreement.

Will those affected accept the donations?

The current proposals provide that more than a dozen former forced laborers and survivors who sued the Japanese companies Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel will first be compensated. However, the group of recipients should be able to be expanded to include other people in view of other pending cases. The South Korean government also emphasized that the fund is open to donations from Japanese companies.

However, it is unclear whether the former forced laborers or their surviving dependents will accept such donations. According to the South Korean news agency Yonhap, the government in Seoul has “given the accused Japanese companies virtual immunity from their legal obligations,” the lawyers for victims or survivors said.

Japan’s prime minister indicated that Tokyo will stand by his country’s earlier apology. In 1995, then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a statement expressing his “deep sense of remorse” and “heartfelt apologies” for the “tremendous suffering” caused by Japan in Asia. Subsequent governments always referred to it.