SPEAKING FREELY Korea-Japan ties burdened by baggage
By Ashley A C Hess
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Japan has yet to apologize sufficiently for its military actions in the 1930s and 1940s, 98% of South Koreans polled by Pew Research this summer believe, while 48% of Japanese want to draw a line on further apology and 15% think it unnecessary to
apologize in any case. Meanwhile, 77% of Koreans have an unfavorable opinion of Japan, up from 52% in 2008, and 85% do not like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Why the differences in opinion?
Abe has not yet had a summit meeting with either South Korean President Park Geun-hye or Chinese President Xi Jinping. During her recent trip to Europe, Park said that a summit would be pointless without a formal apology for Japan's wartime actions. Diplomatic tension is affecting bilateral economic, cultural, and social relations.
What seems to be often ignored in South Korea is that Japan has apologized and attempted to reconcile, repeatedly. The first of such moves was the 1965 Korea-Japan Basic Treaty. In a Cold War context, and with attention increasingly on Vietnam, the US was pushing its two Northeast Asian allies to reconcile. The authoritarian government of Park Chung-hee needed Japanese reparations money for economic growth and reconstruction.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Japanese prime ministers made made a variety of apologies for the war-time suffering and damage. In 1994, Japan established the public-private Asian Women's Fund, which distributed US$11.5 million to 285 former comfort women around Asia; the Indonesian government received $3.1 million for medical facilities and retirement homes. One key 1995 apology, known as the Murayama statement, after then-prime minister Tomiichi Murayama, has been officially endorsed by every cabinet since, including Abe's.
However, the number of court cases involving Korean victims of forced labor and comfort women during Japan's colonization has increased. Tokyo's official position is that all claims for compensation were "completely and conclusively" concluded in the 1965 normalization treaty. In fact, Seoul itself tacitly was in agreement with Japan's stance until the 1990s, when a group of comfort women argued that the government could not take away an individual's right to be compensated. Subsequently, Korea announced in 2005 that comfort women, Sakhalin draftees, and atomic bomb victims would be exceptions to the treaty.
The 1965 treaty re-established economic and diplomatic relations after 14 years of negotiation. Though both sides faced domestic opposition, Park Chung-hee had to institute martial law in 1964 in order to suppress the reportedly hundreds of thousands of anti-treaty protesters.
While Seoul initially demanded $364 million in compensation for the 1,030,000 Koreans forced into military service or labor, in the final agreement Tokyo provided an $800 million aid and low-interest loan package over 10 years. Through a combination of normalizing relations with Japan and sending troops to fight in Vietnam, Seoul also received approximately $1 billion from the US from 1965-1970.
Park spent most of the money on economic development, focusing on infrastructure and the promotion of heavy industry. According to 1,200 pages of documents declassified in 2005, Tokyo proposed that Seoul directly compensate individuals, but Seoul insisted on receiving the entire amount on behalf of the victims. From 1975-77, Park's administration paid 300,000 won ($620) to each of 8,552 families of Koreans who died as forced laborers. Documents show that Park agreed to never make further compensation claims, either at an individual or government level.
The issue of comfort women - the Japanese euphemism for sex slaves shipped around Asia to service the Japanese military - has become particularly problematic and emotional over the years. As a Japanese colony by 1910, Korean women, some as young as 14, were tricked with promises of good jobs and transported to comfort stations around the Pacific in the 1930s and 1940s. Women from China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and even Japan - as well as several Dutch women - were also forced to work at comfort stations. Estimates of the number of such women range from 50,000-200,000, with 80-90% coming from Korea.
There are approximately 50 Korean comfort women remaining, now in their 80s. Every Wednesday in Seoul, they demonstrate outside the Japanese Embassy. They have filed suits for compensation in Japan for years and tried to get the case seen by an international tribunal.
A further issue for Koreans is that Abe has been perceived as questioning historical facts. During his first term as prime minister in 2007, he tried to revise one apology (the Kono statement) to say that there was no evidence of direct government involvement and disputed the level of coercion used in recruiting the comfort women. He called former Prime Minister Naoto Kan's 2010 apology "foolish" and "ignorant".
In April 2013, Abe was asked whether he would reconsider the 1995 Murayama Statement; he replied that matters of history should be left to experts and that "the definition of what constitutes aggression has yet to be established in academia or in the international community." Still, on November 5, 2013, his Foreign Minister said that Abe's administration inherited the Murayama statement.
In addition to comfort women, individual forced laborers have worked to receive compensation from both Tokyo and from the individual companies that benefited from their labor. In 1991, one forced laborer sued NKK Steel and, eight years later, received 4.1 million yen (US$38,500).
After 11 years of deliberation, in 2009, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare agreed to provide welfare pension funds to forced workers, sending each 99 yen, the amount that they were entitled to in 1945 - the equivalent of $1.08 in 2012. In 2010, the Bank of Japan acknowledged that it had 278 million yen of pensions and wages of Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese military conscripts and forced laborers. Japan Post announced in July 2013 that one of its branches was holding tens of thousands of Koreans' wartime accounts.
In 2011, Korea's Constitutional Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the Korean government to not have pressed Japan to resolve the comfort women dispute. Last month, the chief justice gave a speech in the US arguing that the issue had yet to be resolved, calling for Japan to apologize and quickly provide compensation. Korea's Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that Koreans who had been forcibly conscripted as laborers could still file individual compensation claims.
Seoul has claimed that at least 1 million were forced to work in Japan, in addition to those sent to Manchuria, China, and Sakhalin Island. Other sources put the number at 700,000 workers. Almost 300 of the 1493 Japanese companies that used Korean laborers are still operating today.
In July 2013, the Busan High Court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay 80 million won ($72,000) to each plaintiff. The same month, the Seoul High Court ordered Nippon Steel to pay 400 million won ($87,500 each) to compensate four workers for salaries and mental suffering; the company announced that it would appeal the decision but, if the ruling was upheld by the Korean Supreme Court, would agree to pay the Korean victims. While this might seem like a breakthrough, the company noted that if it refused to pay, Nippon's operations and partners in Korea could be affected - such as if its assets were seized to provide reparations.
Analysts note that Tokyo could intervene to prevent Nippon from being forced to provide compensation, given the consequences of such a precedent. A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official announced in November 2013 that, "If the ruling is finalized, we'll object to it as a violation of international law."
In a separate case this month, a South Korean district court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay 150 million won ($141,270) to each of four victims of forced labor and 80 million won to the family member of two forced workers. Mitsubishi immediately announced that it would appeal the decision. Japan's three largest business associations released a statement one week later, indicating they were very concerned about the rulings in the Korean court system and warning that the cases could hurt bilateral trade and investment.
On November 19, 2013, it was reported that recently discovered records at the South Korean embassy in Japan appear to show that more forced laborers and independence fighters were killed than previously estimated; more detailed information on forced workers was also found and more compensation cases could follow.
In response, a Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Tokyo "regards the matter of general compensation claims to have been resolved ... [and] will continue to deal with this matter in a consistent manner." Another Korean article this month reported that new Japanese textbooks were expected to contain a statement that Korean victims had been fully compensated under the 1965 treaty.
Adding to the complications are family histories. Park Geun-hye's father, Park Chung-hee, was an authoritarian ruler who seized power in a military coup and led South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. He had been a lieutenant in the Japanese Army, pledging his allegiance to the Emperor during Japan's colonization. Any moves made by Park Geun-hye that are seen as being soft on Japan could be domestically politically very dangerous, inviting immediate comparison with her father.
Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister of Japan from 1957-60, was accused of exploiting Chinese forced labor in Manchuria in the 1930s. Kishi was appointed Minister of Commerce and Industry in 1941, putting him in charge of the Japanese forced-labor policy and making him a Class-A war-crimes suspect. It was reported in mid-November that Abe told aides that Korea was "simply a silly nation" for taking a hardline stance against Japan, and that Japan was studying economic sanctions against the country as part of a "strategy to conquer" Korea.
The key issue in these historical issues is compensation. Japan has apologized numerous times and provided the Korean government compensation in 1965. A majority in Japan believes that either that no apology is necessary for Japan's military aggression or that the country has already apologized enough. According to the treaty, compensation issues - at both a government and individual level - were considered closed. That Seoul did not disburse much money to the victims was not the fault of Tokyo.
Koreans, however, see the issue differently. While there have been apologies, far-right groups in Japan have consistently rejected historical facts, and politicians have sometimes felt the need to appease their domestic base - including questioning historical issues, visiting shrines, making territorial claims, and maintaining that Japan has paid restitution. The 1965 treaty and compensation are seen as an agreement between governments, while Japan's apologies are also at a government level; individual victims have received very little. The vast majority of those injured under the colonial regime got nothing.
This has become a matter of national pride for both sides. The basic difference of opinions between Koreans and Japanese regarding whether compensation and apologies have been adequately provided - the issue of government-level versus individual-level - is one key reason that these historical issues have continued to fester and negatively affect bilateral relations.
Japan's seeming disregard for the victims of past aggression has direct consequences for the present. Not only have bilateral relations worsened, but the US-Korea-Japan trilateral defense cooperation promoted by Washington has also languished. Recently, US Secretary of State John Kerry told a group of Japanese and US business leaders that "We're all very cognizant of still some unfinished business with respect to the Republic of Korea and the need to move to the future and not be held by the past."
Furthermore, Abe's recent moves to revise Japan's self-defense constitution have been met with public outcry in South Korea and China. Tokyo needs to make high-level moves to compensate all victims adequately and quickly, provide effusive personal apologies, and promise to never again question historical facts. As a nation Korea must accept these moves and lay the issues of comfort women and forced laborers to rest. Without mending historical fences, Japan will have a difficult time attempting to gain regional approval of any constitutional revisions, potentially creating serious diplomatic, economic, and security problems over the coming years.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Ashley A C Hess is a Kelly Korean Studies Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.