Japanese officials may soon get a fresh diplomatic headache stemming from its colonialist past with South Korea as it struggles to cope with the sex slave denial issue, a territorial dispute and challenges to the naming of the Sea of Japan.
The government is paying close attention to a lawsuit filed in South Korea by those conscripted to work for Japanese companies during the war. Speculation is growing that the South Korean Supreme Court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs in the first half of 2014.
A court victory for the former workers, who are seeking withheld wages and compensation from the firms, may effectively overturn the terms of the 1965 bilateral agreement that settled wartime compensation issues and established diplomatic ties.
“If left as is, every other compensation problem would be revived,” a Japanese government source said.
While Tokyo may ask the South Korean government to take action to skirt repercussions over the bilateral accord, it cannot expect much from Seoul because the Supreme Court’s judgment will be a legal decision made independently of the executive branch.
By any measure, Japan’s relations with South Korea are on the rocks and officials in Tokyo have been attempting to prevent them from worsening in the face of disputes over historical issues.
When asked about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s views on the issue, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Jan. 27: “The prime minister’s heart is aching, thinking about the people who suffered beyond description. In this aspect, he is no different from his predecessor.”
This and other remarks by top officials suggest the government is eager to avoid giving Koreans the impression that Abe eschews soul-searching over the past, and is hoping to prevent calls for wartime compensation from rising.
But Abe’s December visit to Yasukuni Shrine, a symbol of Japan’s past militarism, has already damaged the bilateral relationship. Rubbing salt into the wound Friday was Suga, who said it is “natural for the Japanese government” to re-examine the accounts given by Korean wartime sex slaves of the Imperial army.
Amid this backdrop, and given that the Supreme Court is believed to be adjusting to gradual changes in public opinion, the view is gaining ground that a lower court ruling against the Japanese businesses will stand.
“If an order to pay compensation is issued, it will certainly contradict the Japan-Korea agreement on settling claims,” the government source said. “The defendant companies should stick to the principle and should not provide any compensation whatsoever.”
The 1965 agreement states that the two countries confirm that the compensation problem “is settled completely and finally” in exchange for Japan extending $500 million to South Korea. Since 2005, Seoul has been arguing that the agreement does not cover the so-called comfort women, Koreans left behind in Russia’s Sakhalin region or Korean A-bomb victims.
While the South Korean government takes the position that the claims in the conscripted labor cases have expired, a court decision contradicting the executive branch’s view has been issued.
If any defendant corporation accommodates a South Korean court decision in favor of the plaintiffs, that will be tantamount to undercutting the bilateral agreement and Japan “will be exposed to a storm of compensation demands,” a source close to Abe said.
According to a diplomatic source, the Foreign Ministry started coordinating with the South Korean government over this issue around last summer.
Japan has also repeatedly called on the defendant firms to refuse to pay compensation. But if they refuse to comply with the compensation requests, they risk their South Korean assets being confiscated.
They have not so far found a way to avoid that risk. The companies could bring a case to the International Court of Justice or file a fresh lawsuit in South Korea. But neither of these ideas appear to offer a viable solution.
In this seemingly deadlocked situation, the Japanese government has been monitoring a proposal in South Korea to establish a foundation for assisting former wartime laborers. The proposal is said to be based on funding by the South Korean government and South Korean companies.
If the money is considered acceptable but the foundation runs out of cash, it is feared the plaintiffs will try to confiscate the Japanese companies’ assets to use for compensation payments.
“I want to somehow avoid asset seizures,” a senior official at the Japanese Foreign Ministry said. “We don’t want bilateral relations to get any worse than they are now.”