Photo/Illutration South Korean plaintiffs and their supporters protest a government proposal regarding compensation for wartime laborers. (Kiyohide Inada)

The government is considering relying on previous prime ministers' statements that expressed "deep remorse" and a "heartfelt apology" to break the impasse with South Korea over compensation for wartime laborers.

According to several government sources, the statements being considered were those issued over 20 years in line with Aug. 15 anniversaries when Japan marked the end of fighting in World War II.

In their remarks, the respective prime ministers of the time apologized for Japan's colonial rule and aggression. 

The measure is being considered as a “sincere response” sought by South Korean officials. They have put together a proposal of their own to deal with South Korean court rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate wartime laborers from the Korean Peninsula.

It involves setting up a foundation that would pay the Korean laborers in place of the defendant Japanese companies. The foundation would receive donations from companies in both South Korea and Japan.

But the plaintiffs criticized the plan because they want the Japanese companies to respond in a manner that is clearly apologetic, and they want a better picture of where the compensation money will come from.

On Jan. 30, Takehiro Funakoshi, director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, met with his South Korean counterpart, Seo Min-jeong, in Seoul to discuss the issue.

At a gathering held in Seoul on Jan. 12 at which the South Korean government explained its foundation plan, Seo said, “It will be important for Japan to sincerely maintain and carry on its expressions of deep apology and remorse made in the past.”

South Korean officials are hoping for some form of sincere response from Tokyo before they formally present their proposal on the compensation issue.

In 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, a statement was issued in the name of then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama that said, “(Japan) through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. I express my feelings of deep remorse and state my heartfelt apology.”

Ten years later, a statement almost identical to the one issued in Murayama’s name was released under the name of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

In 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a statement that said, “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war. Such (a) position articulated by the previous Cabinets will remain unshakable into the future.”

One government source touched upon the long-held government position that all compensation claims stemming from Japan’s colonial rule were settled under a 1965 bilateral agreement that came alongside the normalization of diplomatic relations with South Korea.

“The government will not issue a new apology or expression of remorse,” the source said.

But officials are looking at whether an expression of carrying on the understanding on historical issues expressed by past Cabinets would be possible and what form such an expression would take and when it should be expressed.

That would be one way of showing support for the efforts of the South Korean government to resolve the compensation issue.

Sources said the government was also considering reviewing the stricter export control measures related to semiconductors it imposed on Seoul in July 2019. The measures were considered in retaliation for the South Korean Supreme Court rulings on compensating wartime laborers.

(This article was written by Anri Takahashi, Satoru Eguchi and Takumi Wakai in Tokyo and Kiyohide Inada in Seoul.)