GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA – Lawyers for South Korean plaintiffs in wartime labor compensation cases against Japanese companies strongly opposed Wednesday a compensation plan unveiled by the head of South Korea’s parliament the previous day.
Speaker Moon Hee-sang, in seeking to mend South Korea’s frayed ties with Japan, has proposed a bill to invite donations from Japanese and South Korean companies and the public to provide funds to compensate victims of forced labor.
In a statement released at a news conference in Gwangju in the country’s southwest, the lawyers called for the plan’s withdrawal, saying it would amount to relieving the Japanese government of its responsibility without its sincere apology.
“Does it make any sense to leave out the Japanese government, which should take responsibility for this issue, and just let the companies settle the problem?” the statement said.
The lawyers also said they were “upset” with Moon’s proposal as they had not been consulted over the plan before he presented it in a speech in Tokyo on Tuesday evening.
Bilateral relations have plummeted since October last year when South Korea’s top court ordered Nippon Steel Corp. to pay compensation for forced labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Since then, other Japanese companies have also been ordered by South Korean courts to compensate Korean plaintiffs. But none has taken steps to compensate them as Japan takes the position that the issue of compensation was settled in a deal signed when the two countries established diplomatic ties in 1965.
The South Korean government has said the separation of powers must be respected.
Japanese government officials reiterated that the issue should be resolved in South Korea, maintaining that the 1965 accord put an end to Japan’s obligation to provide compensation.
Asked about the proposal at a news conference Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, “The government’s stance remains unchanged,” while a senior Foreign Ministry official said the proposal was “hardly acceptable in its present form.”
Aimed at breaking the deadlock, the bill envisioned by the South Korean National Assembly speaker seeks to facilitate the creation of a fund that would become a vessel for the donations, as well as 6 billion South Korean won ($5.2 million) left over from a now-defunct, Japan-funded foundation to support former “comfort women.” “Comfort women” is a euphemism for those who worked in Japanese wartime military brothels, including those who did so against their will.
The bill would need to provide a “fundamental and comprehensive” solution that would preclude future claims in South Korea, Moon said.
The speaker has reportedly expressed willingness to see relevant legislation enacted by the end of this year. But the immediate opposition from the plaintiffs’ lawyers might make it difficult for the measure to gain broad support.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Yang Gum-dok, 89, who won damages for forced labor from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. in November 2018, repeated her call for an apology from the Japanese government.
The government of President Moon Jae-in has taken a “victims first” approach in handling the wartime labor issue.