National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Korean wartime labor rulings spark debate

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

The 2017 South Korean film, “The Battleship Island,” has yet to receive a theatrical release in Japan, even though it’s set on Hashima, more commonly known as Gunkanjima, a former mining complex off the coast of Kyushu and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Given the current diplomatic tensions between Japan and South Korea sparked by two recent South Korean Supreme Court cases that ruled in favor of Koreans who sued Japanese companies they worked for during World War II, it probably won’t be released here anytime soon.

The movie is about an uprising of Korean mine workers during the final days of the war. Japanese media have described the movie’s depiction of starvation and hellish conditions as distortions. The film’s director, Ryoo Seung-wan, has said he had no intention of stirring anti-Japan feelings: It’s an action blockbuster, not a polemic. As in most Korean films that take place during Japan’s colonial rule, the main villains are Korean collaborators. The Japanese characters, though they sometimes do awful things, are marginal.

One of the questions at the heart of the Supreme Court cases is whether the plaintiffs were forced to work at the companies they were suing. In the film, some of the workers are recruited by Korean brokers with political connections. They sign up for what they believe are factory jobs in Japan but end up being sent to Gunkanjima, where they are treated as prisoners.

The government has protested the court rulings, since the economic cooperation pact attached to the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea supposedly settled in perpetuity all claims stemming from Japan’s colonial period. On Oct. 31, Japan’s five main dailies published editorials in support of the government’s position with regard to the first ruling.

However, the Asahi Shimbun also asked three scholars to weigh in on the matter for a Nov. 23 feature. Modern history researcher Yasuto Takeuchi focused on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Diet statement, in which he said that while some Korean workers may have been conscripted during the war, the plaintiffs came to Japan of their own free will. Takeuchi, however, sees it differently.

There was a severe labor shortage in Japan by 1944 and, according to Takeuchi, the Japanese military directed the governor-general of Korea to mobilize Koreans for labor. Some were conscripted, but even those who were recruited didn’t know what they were getting into.

The former employees who sued Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. were shipped to Japan but, once they arrived, their movement was restricted and they could not quit. As with the miners in “The Battleship Island,” the company withheld pay indefinitely to control the workers. Those who left the company premises were typically deemed criminals and arrested by the police. This was the general situation at many Japanese companies.

As Takeuchi put it, the Koreans were by no means free laborers.

Professor Osamu Ota of Doshisha University, an expert on Japan-Korea relations, tells the Asahi Shimbun that the 1965 pact was an agreement of economic cooperation between an industrially ascendant Japan and a military dictatorship. One of Japan’s goals was to avoid responsibility for any “damage” caused by its colonial rule, while the Korean leaders, many of whom had served under Japan during the war, wanted financial aid to develop their economy at the height of the Cold War. In return for money, they were willing to forfeit their citizens’ right to demand restitution.

South Korea’s position changed with the end of martial law in 1987. Hideki Okuzono, associate professor of Shizuoka Prefectural University, says in the Asahi piece that his main takeaway from the Supreme Court decisions is that the legality of Japan’s colonial rule was never addressed in the 1965 pact, and so the agreement does not abrogate any Korean’s right to sue for “inhumane treatment.”

The ruling was made possible by a change in the political climate. Since 1987, the courts in South Korea have shifted their regard from the authorities to the people, and the Supreme Court decision shows how the Korean legal system is “one step ahead” of its Japanese counterpart, which tends to align with the government. It helps explain why the government subsequently demanded that Seoul take immediate action to remedy what it believed was a breach of international law. In a democracy with true separation of powers, Okuzono says, the executive branch has no authority to affect an individual’s petition for justice, but Seoul might still bend to Tokyo’s will.

In the weekly Aera, University of Tokyo professor Kang Sang-jung says he understands why Japan is angry at South Korea, but “democracy respects the individual,” and therefore the ruling was inevitable. He points out that, in 1991, Foreign Ministry official Shunji Yanai told the Diet that the 1965 pact only addressed “diplomatic protection,” meaning the right of a government to sue another government on behalf of its citizens. It did not eliminate the right of an individual to sue another individual (that is, a corporation). And while Japanese courts in subsequent lawsuits decided against Korean workers due to the treaty, judges commented that what the plaintiffs suffered at the hands of their Japanese overlords was “unbearable.”

Similarly, according to attorney Shiro Kawakami in an interview in the weekly Kinyobi, due to China’s renouncement of wartime claims in the 1972 China-Japan Joint Communique, the Japanese Supreme Court in the 2007 Nishimatsu case ruled against Chinese plaintiffs who were forcibly brought to work in Japan. However, the judges also said the Japanese company should settle with the plaintiffs out of court, and the company did.

In Kawakami’s view, whatever legal force the 1965 pact retains, Japan overreacted to the South Korean Supreme Court verdicts. The government’s principal concern seems to be pushing Japan’s colonial rule out of the historical memory. He also accuses the media of neglecting their responsibility by playing up the bilateral conflict and ignoring the human rights abuses suffered by the plaintiffs. It shouldn’t be about Korean intransigence, he says. It should be about doing the right thing.