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A Profound Development in Japan-South Korea Relations

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Tokyo Report

A Profound Development in Japan-South Korea Relations

A recent ruling has global implications.

A Profound Development in Japan-South Korea Relations

South Korean Lee Chun-sik, center, a 94-year-old victim of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, sits on a wheelchair upon his arrival outside the Supreme Court in Seoul, South Korea (Oct. 30, 2018). The banner reads: “Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation should compensate and apologize to victims of forced labor.”

Credit: AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

Relations between Japan and South Korea have been dealt a significant blow following a ruling against the wartime forced labor of Koreans handed down by the Supreme Court of Korea on October 30 last year. In response to the lawsuit brought by those commonly known by the name “conscripted factory workers,” the Korean court ruling is premised on the understanding that “Japanese colonial rule was imposed by force and as such was illegal from the outset.” The court ruled that under illegal colonial rule, people who were mobilized to Japanese companies have the right to seek compensation.

Needless to say, Japan and South Korea have had disputes in the past over the various victims of colonial rule, including comfort women. In that sense, this latest ruling in respect of conscripted factory workers is one more in a series of disputes. However, it has significance that sets it apart from that of previous decisions made by the Korean government and courts. The reason lies in the logic of the judgment. For if, as this ruling states, Japanese colonial rule was illegal from the outset, and therefore those mobilized under that rule have a right to seek compensation, then all acts performed by the Japanese colonial authorities at that time were illegal, and every person under their rule without exception – to a greater or lesser degree – has the right to seek compensation. According to one South Korean researcher, this means that “all 20 million South Koreans who lived under colonial rule at that time have the right to seek compensation,” and through the inheritance of the right to seek compensation, that right will be passed down to 5 million citizens living in South Korea today. Leaving aside the question of the extent to which this will actually be exercised, it is clear that the impact of this latest ruling is enormous.

What is more, the significance of this ruling handed down by the Korean court is not limited to relations between Japan and South Korea. For the ruling is probably the first time in history that the highest judicial institution of a country has declared colonial rule to be illegal. The South Korean court has ascribed this to the fact that it was “imposed by force,” but the use of force is not unique to Japan and South Korea. In almost all cases of colonization, it is clear that the former suzerain states used physical violence. That is precisely why the issues surrounding this ruling, at least logically speaking, may develop into issues between former suzerain states and the countries that they colonized. In fact, a movement has arisen to take this result beyond South Korea, with some South Korean activists promoting it in other countries.

What this situation also offers us is potential insights from the issues surrounding the current relationship between Japan and South Korea that will help us predict the situation in other parts of Asia and the rest of the world. This is because relations between Japan and South Korea are an example of the closest power relations between a former suzerain state and a colonized nation since the 19th century. Today, South Korea is the 12th largest economy in the world, almost on a par with Russia. Its annual military expenditure is currently tenth in the world, and if the current situation continues the country will soon overtake Germany in ninth place and Japan in eighth place.

Another important point to bear in mind is South Korea’s experience with the so-called “Third Wave of Democracy.” For the people of South Korea, the events of the 1960s which saw them break away from colonial rule and normalize relations with Japan occurred in the distant past under an evil authoritarian regime. That is precisely why they consider it proper that the events that took place under that regime be investigated. And the courts are basing their decisions on today’s new values not only in respect of relations with Japan but in respect of many legal issues during that period of authoritarian rule.

Situations similar to that of South Korea is already occurring across Asia. Asian countries experiencing continued economic growth are becoming affluent and increasingly have a voice in the international community. Democratization leads to the eradication of previously harmful social practices, including political corruption in those countries. In many countries, people are taking to the streets and demanding social reform and the eradication of deep-rooted evil.

In other words, the case of South Korea may be said to be an example of a movement to eradicate deep-rooted evil in democratizing Asian countries beginning to extend its influence to the sphere of international relations. South Korea is a front-runner among former developing countries, and other Asian countries will follow. Looking back, during the Cold War a major power disparity existed between developed nations, including the United States and Japan, and other Asian countries, with Asia sometimes being pressured into signing unwanted treaties. Naturally, there was inequality, and from inequality a backlash will emerge.

How will the international community, especially old developed countries including former suzerain states, respond to this trend? And how will former colonizing countries find a compromise with the domestic movement for reform and the enormous impact that this will have on the international community? The challenge that South Korea, the forerunner among former colonized countries, poses to Japan, an old developed country, could well be an important litmus test that offers a glimpse into this issue.

Kan Kimura is a professor at Kobe University.