Photo/Illutration South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin speaks during a briefing at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on March 6. (Pool photo via AP)

Japan and South Korea have agreed on a way to resolve the contentious issue of compensating Korean laborers who toiled for Japanese businesses during World War II.

The South Korean government on March 6 formally announced its plan to have a foundation within the country pay the compensation to the former wartime laborers.

The Japanese government responded to Seoul’s move by indicating it will inherit the “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” expressed by previous administrations for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi gave a favorable response to Seoul’s plan.

“I evaluate the plan as a step toward returning the highly strained relations between Japan and South Korea to a healthy state,” he told reporters at the ministry on March 6.

He added the government will take this opportunity to confirm it maintains the stances of past Cabinets toward historical perceptions, including those expressed in the Japan-South Korea joint declaration in October 1998.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told an Upper House Budget Committee session on March 6 that he appreciates Seoul’s plan because it will help the two countries mend their bilateral ties.

The wartime laborers issue resurfaced when South Korea’s Supreme Court in autumn 2018 ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and what is now Nippon Steel Corp. to pay compensation to Korean plaintiffs who worked for those companies during the war.

Some of the plaintiffs have expressed their intention to accept money from the foundation.

But other plaintiffs have criticized South Korea’s plan because it includes neither an apology nor compensation from the Japanese companies.

Opposition parties in South Korea have also severely criticized the plan.

However, both Tokyo and Seoul decided to hammer out a solution amid the deteriorating economic security environment in the region.

The Japanese government had rejected the South Korean Supreme Court ruling, saying all compensation claims stemming from the colonial rule were settled under a bilateral agreement in 1965, when relations were normalized.

Japan regarded the court case as a “domestic issue in South Korea.” And the defendant Japanese companies did not respond to the court ruling.

Under South Korea’s plan, the Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan, a government-affiliated foundation that supports former Korean wartime laborers, will pay them an amount equivalent to the compensation order to the Japanese companies in the 2018 lawsuit.

Regarding an ongoing court case involving other wartime laborers, the foundation will pay the plaintiffs if they win the case.

For the time being, the foundation will use donations from South Korean companies to pay the money. However, the South Korean side will continue to call on the Japanese companies to voluntarily provide compensation for the former laborers.

In January, the South Korean government made public the plan it would likely employ to settle the wartime labor issue.

Seoul then sought a “sincere response” from Japan, such as making a fresh apology for its colonial rule or having the defendant Japanese companies contribute funds to the foundation.

However, the Japanese companies did not agree to provide money to the foundation.

According to multiple sources, the Japanese government refused to issue a new apology, but it was open to saying it has inherited past words of remorse and apology of previous administrations.

In the March 6 announcement, the South Korean government said one reason it put together the plan was the need to quickly resolve the issue because the plaintiffs are aging.

Another reason was to halt the lengthy deterioration in the relationship between Japan and South Korea, Seoul said.

“The South Korean government has a will to further develop the South Korea-Japan relationship in a future-oriented way,” South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said at a news conference on March 6. “With this will, we deeply sympathize with the victims’ sufferings and pain, and will make the utmost effort to heal their wounds soon.”

The Japanese government is now expected to formally say it has inherited the “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” expressed, for example, in the Murayama Statement in 1995, the 1998 Japan-South Korea Joint Declaration, and the Abe Statement in 2015.

In 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, then Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a statement 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.”

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.”

In the 1998 declaration, then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi communicated his “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.

Then South Korean President Kim Dae Jung expressed his view that “the present calls upon both countries” “to build a future-oriented relationship.”

Current South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has vowed to improve the Japan-South Korean relationship.

When Yoon replaced Moon Jae-in, who was antagonistic toward Japan, in May last year, Seoul and Tokyo agreed to deepen their cooperation.

Japan and South Korea face common issues in security and economy in the region. North Korea has accelerated its nuclear and missile development, and the tensions between the United States and China are rising.

Industries in both Japan and South Korea intend to engage in “future-oriented” projects to help improve the bilateral relationship.

Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), Japan’s largest business lobby, is considering projects to promote exchanges between Japanese and South Korean young people, including granting scholarships to South Korean students studying in Japan.

The Japanese government will now consider reviewing its controls on exports of high-tech materials to South Korea that were tightened in July 2019 when diplomatic ties were unraveling.

(This article was compiled from reports by correspondents Kiyohide Inada and Takuya Suzuki in Seoul and staff writers Ryutaro Abe, Kazuki Uechi and Anri Takahashi in Tokyo.)