South Korea and Japan have announced a series of measures to ease tensions over wartime forced labour and recent trade restrictions, which the US welcomed as a “groundbreaking” step to improve ties between its two most important regional allies.
South Korean foreign minister Park Jin on Monday said South Korea’s private sector, which was compensated under a 1965 treaty with Japan, would pay into a public foundation for victims of forced labour during the second world war.
Just hours after Seoul’s announcement, Tokyo said it would launch talks to ease export controls imposed in 2019 on chemicals vital to South Korea’s semiconductor industry. South Korea said it would suspend a complaint lodged against Japan with the World Trade Organization while the talks proceeded.
The efforts by Japan and South Korea to repair strained relations come after the US pressed for reconciliation between its Pacific allies to counter China’s regional assertiveness and to deter nuclear-armed North Korea.
Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida said Seoul’s proposed fund would help “to return relations between Japan and South Korea to a healthy state”. US president Joe Biden hailed the plan as “a critical step to forge a future for the Korean and Japanese people” in a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
But it drew immediate backlash from victims and opposition parties for failing to compel payments from Japanese companies.
The leader of South Korea’s main opposition Democratic party called the plan “humiliating” and accused President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration of choosing “the path to betray historical justice”.
Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer for several victims, wrote in a Facebook post: “It is a complete victory by Japan, which has said it cannot pay a single yen on the forced labour issue.”
Ties between Tokyo and Seoul disintegrated in 2018 after South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal — to pay victims of forced labour.
The same year, a separate deal brokered by Kishida, then foreign minister, to compensate South Korean victims of sexual slavery collapsed.
Tokyo has rejected calls for compensation from Japanese companies, insisting that all claims related to its colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945 were resolved by the 1965 treaty.
Japan’s foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said on Monday that the government would not object to Japanese companies making voluntary contributions to the fund. He said Kishida’s administration endorsed a 1998 expression of “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for colonial rule.
Analysts said leadership changes in South Korea and Japan had brightened the prospects of a thaw. Yoon last week said Japan had “transformed from a militaristic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us”.
People close to both governments said Yoon could visit Tokyo as soon as this Friday to attend a South Korea-Japan game at the World Baseball Classic in Tokyo.
For Japan, tensions with South Korea had complicated efforts to bolster regional defence efforts with the US.
“The speed with which the two countries reached this deal shows that they share a deep understanding of the deterioration in the security environment,” said Kohtaro Ito at the Canon Institute for Global Studies.
Experts, however, said South Korea’s options had been limited by Japan’s refusal to make significant concessions on the 1965 treaty.
“It is hard to move bilateral relations forward without resolving the forced labour issue,” said Park Cheol-hee, professor of Japanese politics at Seoul National University. “The government seems to have made a political decision to compensate the victims quickly.”