The relationship between South Korea and Japan has deteriorated considerably. The relationship took another turn for the worst on July 4, when the Japanese government excluded Korea from the “list of trustworthy (export) countries” and took economic retaliatory measures in response to a Korean Supreme Court decision ordering a Japanese corporation to pay compensation to surviving Korean victims of forced labor during Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Bilateral relations have continued to go downhill with a growing consumer campaign in Korea to boycott Japanese products and Korean tourists canceling trips to Japan. Japan is blaming Korea for the worsening ties, claiming the row occurred because of Seoul’s passive attitude toward resolving the issue of the ruling on the forced labor victims.
So, is Japan right? Regarding this situation, an article recently republished by the online edition of Bunshun, a media outlet run by the Japanese monthly magazine Bungeishunju, has grabbed attention. This article was originally published on November 21, 2013, by The Shukan Bunsyun, a weekly magazine published by Bunshun’s publisher and parent company Bungeishunju.
Ready-made Economic Sanctions on Korea
This article said the Abe administration had prepared retaliatory actions against Korea as far back as six years ago, when Park Geun-hye was president of Korea. She rejected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s request to hold a bilateral summit from 2013 to 2015. At the time, the comfort women problem was the most crucial issue between Seoul and Tokyo. Given Japan’s “insulting” attitude toward the issue, Park continued to strongly criticize the Japanese government through every possible opportunity, including through interviews with foreign media and summits with other heads of state. As such, the article said the Abe administration planned to inflict more damage on the Korean government through retaliatory measures in economy and public relations.
At the time, the Japanese government mainly focused on hurting the Korean economy through a policy of selling the Korean won (KRW) to get it to appreciate. Another Japanese strategy was to bolster its public relations campaign to boost Japan’s territorial claim to the disputed Dokdo Islands and position on the comfort women. This article mentioned several retaliatory measures proposed by Koichi Hagiuda, former deputy chief secretary of the Abe administration’s cabinet and now acting executive secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan. He is a leading figure in the setup of such measures against Korea, including the latest export restrictions on strategic materials.
According to the article, the Abe administration clearly began from the Park Geun-hye government to take retaliatory actions if Seoul criticized Tokyo and publicized to the world issues crucial to bilateral relations.
So wouldn’t bilateral relations improve if the Korean government communicated well with its Japanese counterpart and made diplomatic concessions? This is possible. In this scenario, Seoul would have no choice but to make many concessions and accept Japan’s claims on pending bilateral issues, including sovereignty over Dokdo, the comfort women, and forced labor victims.
The Abe administration is from a fringe group among Japan’s mainstream conservatives in that it denies past Japanese aggression and argues that the Pacific War was a “war for Asian liberation against white rule.” Members of this group also insist that the comfort women system was legitimate. Thus Korea will need to make considerable concessions to persuade the Abe administration to do the same in bilateral relations.
A leading example in this regard is the Korea-Japan Comfort Women Agreement signed by both countries on December 28, 2015. Under this accord, both sides said the comfort women issue was resolved in a “final and irreversible manner.” Though Japan gave 1 billion yen to the Korean government, it refused to admit any wrongdoing. The sum was considered consolation money paid on humanitarian grounds, but constituted neither compensation nor damages; the money was just an apology for the pain caused under “the legitimate situation” of the comfort women system. What the victims truly wanted, however, was a proper apology from Prime Minister Abe and Japan’s acknowledgement that its mobilization of such women was an unlawful act. But Abe, despite his government agreeing to the payout, never admitted that the running of the comfort women system was an unlawful act committed by the Japanese military.
Because of this, the Abe administration finds it difficult to accept the Korean court’s ruling that ordered a Japanese corporation to pay compensation to forced labor victims. Even if Korea exerted numerous diplomatic efforts, Japan would still take retaliatory action so long as Seoul upheld the verdict. For this reason, the Korean government’s lack of early effort to reach a diplomatic solution to the issue cannot be considered a critical factor that deteriorated Korean-Japanese relations.
Japan Chose to Give up on Diplomacy
Since June this year, the Korean government has been asking Japan to hold summit talks between President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Abe. It was Tokyo that rejected Seoul’s request. During the G-20 summit in Osaka last month, Abe held meetings with all participating heads of state except Moon. Two days after the G-20 summit ended, Japan began imposing economic sanctions on Korea. In the end, the Japanese government was the one to ultimately give up on diplomatic dialogue efforts with Korea.
Along with Hagiuda, Itsunori Onodera, chairman of the LDP’s Research Commission on Security, is insisting on the legitimacy of Japan’s retaliatory action through media outlets. At an LDP lecture on June 10, Onodera said, “It’s hard to improve Korean-Japanese relations with the incumbent Korean government. It will be possible only after the administration changes in Korea. For now, ignoring the Moon administration is the best policy.” This seems to be about the time when Japan decided to take retaliatory measures.
The Japanese government denies that its latest actions are retaliatory, saying it simply lifted preferential measures for Korea because “inappropriate cases” occurred among its export items to Korea. Japan, however, has shown no proof to back this “inappropriate cases” allegation, which refers to unauthorized exports or leaks of strategic materials to North Korea. Instead, quite a few reports have said that Japan is the one that exported strategic materials to the North.
Lawsuits Between Individuals and Companies
The Japanese government also needs to objectively think about the recent Korean court ruling in favor of former forced Korean laborers, which is considered the main cause of the retaliatory measures. This is because in 1991, Yanai Shunji, then director general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Treaties Bureau, said three times when asked in parliament that an individual’s right to file a claim “was not terminated” and what was terminated was the country’s right to protect its individuals. Korean victims have since filed lawsuits in Japan. In 2000, Korean women forced to work at Japanese munitions factories and for machinery manufacturer Nachi-Fujikoshi Corp. even settled their lawsuit with the Japanese Supreme Court. This proves that Japan recognizes an individual’s right to file a claim. The Abe administration, however, has done little to reach a real resolution on this issue while accusing the Korean government of breaking its promises.
Under the Korea-Japan Claims Settlement Agreement under the 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations, Japan paid only compensation for properties including outstanding payments or debts. Tokyo did not compensate for unlawful acts suffered by Koreans during Japanese colonial rule such as discrimination, “insulting acts,” or physical persecution. Whether Japan sufficiently compensated Korea is uncertain due to Tokyo’s claim that it lacked related data on the payment amount. Yet much such data has since been discovered in Japan, raising the possibility that its government might have hid the data. For this reason, saying the compensation issue ended in 1965 is difficult.
What needs highlighting in this lawsuit is that this verdict is between individuals and companies and does not target a country, and that an individual’s right to file a claim was never terminated. The best solution in this case is for the Japanese government to stay out of lawsuits between individuals and companies and allow Japanese companies to decide.
Furthermore, this issue must be dealt from a human rights perspective because all the discussions have failed to consider the human rights of the comfort women and forced laborers. Both Seoul and Tokyo can find an answer when such rights are considered.
Yuji Hosaka teaches political science at Sejong University in Seoul. As a naturalized Korean of Japanese descent, he is also director of the Dokdo Research Institute.