Relations between Japan and South Korea have again hit turbulence as Tokyo demands Seoul take swift action over a court ruling awarding compensation for wartime forced labor. The issue has prompted warnings from the Japanese government that the basis for friendly bilateral ties has been shaken, prompting South Korea to accuse Tokyo of overreacting.
The friction stems from a decision by South Korea’s supreme court on October 30 to uphold a lower court ruling awarding compensation to four citizens who were forced to work for a Japanese company during World War II. The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.
Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation has been ordered to pay each plaintiff 100 million won ($88,740) in compensation. Due to the time the case has taken to be decided, only one of the original plaintiffs was still alive to hear the verdict.
Japanese officials describe the ruling as “extremely regrettable and totally unacceptable” because they contend that it violates the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation Between Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).
At the time, the Japanese government committed to pay the South Korean government $300 million in grants over a period of 10 years and to also provide $200 million in low-interest loans.
Tokyo points to Article II of that agreement, which says in part:
The Contracting Parties confirm that problem concerning property, rights, and interests of the two Contracting Parties and their nationals (including juridical persons) and concerning claims between the Contracting Parties and their nationals, including those provided for in Article IV, paragraph (a) of the Treaty of Peace with Japan signed at the city of San Francisco on September 8, 1951, is settled completely and finally.
However, South Korea’s supreme court ruled that the 1965 bilateral treaty did not terminate individuals’ rights to claim damages, Yonhap News reported.
On the day of the ruling, the South Korean ambassador was called into the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be given a stern message from Tokyo. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono also issued a statement demanding that Seoul “take appropriate measures, including immediate actions to remedy such breach of international law.”
Japan has not yet clarified the specific measures that is seeking from the South Korean government. Still, Kono underlined the potentially grave impact on bilateral ties: “Above all, the decision completely overthrows the legal foundation of the friendly and cooperative relationship that Japan and the Republic of Korea have developed since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1965.”
In its initial responses, the South Korean government stressed its respect for the court’s decision while signaling that it needed time to consider a comprehensive response to the ruling.
In a telephone conversation on October 31, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told Kono that the government “respected” the judiciary’s decision and would develop its next steps “after meticulously reviewing matters related to the ruling and comprehensively mulling over the full range of relevant factors.” The readout issued by South Korea’s foreign ministry added that both ministers “underscored the need for the two countries to continue working together in a bid to advance the bilateral relations in a future-oriented way.”
Japan escalated its warnings in the subsequent days. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the ruling an “unbelievable decision” and reaffirmed the option of seeking an international adjudication. Kono followed that up with an on-camera interview with Bloomberg News in which he alluded to broader fallout. Kono said: “If any country gets into an agreement with the Korean government in international law and the the Korean Supreme Court could overturn the agreement any time they wish to, it would be difficult for any country to do anything with the South Korean government.”
This week, Seoul accused Tokyo of politicizing the issue. Its foreign ministry said in a statement that South Korea was “very concerned that Japan’s leaders in positions of responsibility are disregarding the root cause of the issue … and continue to make comments that rouse our public’s emotions.” The November 4 statement continued: “The Japanese government must be clearly aware that excessive political emphasis on the present case will be of no help to the future-oriented relationship between South Korea and Japan.”
There had been signs earlier this year – the 20th anniversary of a joint declaration calling for an improvement in relations between Seoul and Tokyo – of positive trends in bilateral ties. However, historical issues continue to cause tension. In early October, Japan announced its withdrawal from an international fleet review in South Korea, after Tokyo refused to accept Seoul’s demands not to hoist the “rising sun” flag, which is viewed on the Korean Peninsula as a symbol of Japan’s imperialistic past.
The Japanese military’s wartime use of sex slaves, euphemistically referred to as comfort women, is another difficult issue. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has decided not to revisit the 2015 bilateral agreement with Japan forged by his predecessor, which was intended at the time as the “final and irreversible” resolution of the comfort women issue. However, Moon told Abe in September that the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation set up as part of the agreement would “wither” because it of opposition from victims.
From the perspective of the United States, the continued strains between its two key allies in East Asia are an unneeded complication, especially at a crucial time in international negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. At a media briefing last week, Japanese foreign ministry press secretary Takeshi Osuga said: “We are hoping that this will not be damaging to the collaborative joint work to deal with the issue of North Korea, which is an important issue not just for us but for South Korea, and we’re hoping that South Korea will react properly and immediately.”
All eyes are on whether Seoul and Tokyo can find a creative way to resolve this dispute in coming weeks. Japan has kept the door open to seeking relief from an international court or tribunal, although it may face procedural hurdles. One option is to pursue the dispute resolution procedure allowed for in the 1965 bilateral agreement, which would be decided by an arbitration board.