Pacific News Minute: WWII Atrocities Continue to Strain Relations Between S. Korea and Japan

Jan 2, 2019

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Diplomatic tensions between Japan and South Korea are rising again, after South Korean courts allowed lawsuits to proceed against Japanese companies, seeking compensation for forced labor during the Second World War. Japan argues that these issues were resolved in the 1965 treaty that established diplomatic relations between the two countries.

In recent years, the lingering enmity between Tokyo and Seoul surfaced around the issue of the so-called comfort women, sex slaves forced to work in Japanese military brothels during the Second World War. You may remember that when a statue honoring comfort women was erected in San Francisco, Osaka formally renounced its sister city status.

Now, South Koreans are seeking compensation from Japanese companies where they were forced to work during the war. Last fall, a court ordered Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corporation to pay about 350,000 dollars to four South Koreans. The company has refused to meet with the plaintiffs lawyers and now they plan to seize the steel giant’s assets in South Korea. Officials from the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministries have reportedly made little progress on the issue. 

Japan is angry because it believes compensation was covered by economic aid paid to South Korea in the normalization treaty in 1965.  Japan also established a fund to cover the surviving worker’s medical expenses in 2008.

Credit YunHo LEE / Flickr

The South Korean government says its judicial system is independent, but even if it could intervene, its hands are tied by the depth of anger against Japan. Both the forced labor case and the comfort woman issue represent long standing grievances from the Japanese occupation, which lasted from 1902 to 1945. Many Koreans believe Japan has never fully apologized.

Cases against three more Japanese companies are making their way through South Korean courts.