South Korea has a plan to end the forced labor dispute with Japan

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Ythe Geum-deok, a child of 1940s Korea, dreams of becoming a teacher. When her boss suggested that she should study in Japan, the country’s colonial ruler, she willingly agreed. At the age of 13, she created the necessary documents and left her home in South Jeolla district. She was quickly sent not to the promised school in Japan, but to an aircraft factory run by Mitsubishi, a Japanese conglomerate. “I worked myself almost to death and I never got paid,” she recalls. Her last hope, she says, “is that the perpetrators give a sincere apology before let me die”.

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She might be offered some hard cash anyway. On March 6, the government of Yoon Suk-yeol, the president of South Korea, announced a new compensation fund for victims of Japanese forced labor during the war or their surviving relatives. The details – including, crucially, whether Mitsubishi or any Japanese company will pay into it – are unclear. But Mr. Yoon hopes this will end a dispute that has poisoned the two countries’ relations for decades, even as American pressure and concerns about China and North Korea draw them closer. Joe Biden, the president of America, said that the announcement was “a new chapter of cooperation and partnership”.

It follows a decision by the South Korean Supreme Court, in 2018, that two Japanese companies, Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, must compensate the South Koreans, or their surviving relatives, who came to work in their factories. The Japanese government objected, saying the issue had been settled by a treaty between the two countries in 1965. A backlash ensued, raising expectations that the court would seize the asset. from South Korea to be captured by Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi. Since Mr. Yoon came to power last May, officials in Seoul and Tokyo have been engaged in a closed-door effort to rectify matters.

The compensation fund will be partially or fully funded by the South Korean government. South Korean companies that received funds under the 1965 agreement (which included $800m in grants and low-interest loans to South Korea) will be encouraged but not forced to contribute. Japanese companies can do so voluntarily. Meanwhile the Japanese government, instead of issuing a new apology, will reissue the “deep regret and sincere apology” it issued in 1998 for the “damage and suffering great” caused by the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea in 1910-45.

The formula shows how little Kishida Fumio, the prime minister of Japan, felt able to negotiate. He fears it will upset the right of his Liberal Democratic Party, which opposes any new apology. Mr Kishida described the fund as a “return to a healthy relationship”. Within hours, Japan’s trade ministry announced bilateral talks on lifting controls, in place since 2019, on the export of materials to South Korea for semiconductor manufacturing. (South Korea said it would drop a related complaint it had filed with the World Trade Organization.) On March 9 the two countries announced that Mr. Yoon would make an official visit to Japan next week. He can also be welcomed as a guest at the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May.

South Korea’s leader still needs to sell his position at home. His push for better bilateral relations hinges on an appeal to South Koreans to weigh the benefits of cooperating with Japan against their grievances over its past abuses. In a speech on March 1, a day that marks Korean independence, Mr. Yoon said that Japan had changed from a “military aggressor in the past to a partner that has the same universal values”. But it probably won’t bother either the victims of Japanese forced labor or his political opponents.

Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer acting for 15 plaintiffs in connection with Nippon Steel’s use of forced labor, argues that for the fund to work as intended, each must claim have to refuse compensation from the Japanese company. And some of them, he suggested, will want Nippon Steel itself to apologize and pay. “How can we accept this when there is not one excuse, not one yen?” he asks.

Most South Koreans want better relations with Japan. But a recent poll suggests that 64% think Japan needs another apology and an investigation into its past. And Mr. Yoon’s opponents will echo that sentiment. Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the opposition party, has accused the government of “treating victims of forced labor as if they were an obstacle to the development of relations”. Much of the same accusation helped overturn a “final and irreversible resolution” on the issue of Korean women forced into sex slavery during the war with Japan, negotiated by both country in 2015.

As night fell on March 6, anti-deal protesters gathered outside Seoul’s city hall. Candle-lit signs criticized Mr. Yoon’s “humiliating anti-Japanese diplomacy” and American support for him. The big question is whether Mr. Yoon has done more to moderate the anger, or to extinguish it.

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