Pressure is growing on Japan and South Korea to resolve their historical feuds, with Seoul’s top court set to examine a case that could see the assets of some Japanese firms sold off to compensate Korean wartime labourers.

The case is one of dozens that South Koreans have lodged against Japan, which colonised the Korean peninsula from 1910 – 1945, seeking reparations for forced labour and sexual slavery in Japanese military brothels during World War II.

The South Korean Supreme Court, in a series of landmark rulings in 2018, has already ordered Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to compensate some 14 former workers for their brutal treatment and unpaid labour.

Many of them are now in their 90s, and several have died since the rulings without seeing any compensation.

“I cannot pass away before receiving an apology from Japan,” one of the former labourers, Yang Geum-deok, wrote in a recent letter to the South Korean government. The 93 year old, who was sent to work at a Mitsubishi aircraft factory in 1944, when she was 14, said the Japanese company “needs to apologise and turn over the money”.

But both Mitsubishi Heavy and Nippon Steel have refused to comply with the rulings, with the Japanese government insisting the issue has been settled in past bilateral agreements.

Lee Choon-shik, a victim of wartime forced labor during the Japanese colonial period, holds a banner that reads
Lee Choon-shik, a victim of wartime forced labour during the Japanese colonial period, holds a banner that reads ‘Apologise for forced labour and fulfil the compensation’ during an anti-Japan protest on Liberation Day in Seoul, South Korea, on August 15, 2019 [File: Kim Hong-Ji/ Reuters]
Students hold portraits of deceased former South Korean
Students hold portraits of deceased former South Korean sex slaves during an anti-Japan rally in Seoul, South Korea, on August 15, 2018 [File: Kim Hong-Ji/ Reuters]

The South Korean Supreme Court is now set to deliberate on a lower court ruling that ordered the liquidation of some of Mitusbishi Heavy Industries’ assets, and experts are urging Seoul and Tokyo to reach a resolution before a verdict is announced.

They say the long-running feuds could threaten security cooperation between the two neighbours at a time when North Korea has warned of preemptive nuclear strikes and launched an unprecedented number of missiles and weapons tests. The stakes are high for the United States, too. For Washington, which has military bases and troops in both countries, the feuds undermine its efforts to build an Indo-Pacific alliance to counter China’s growing global influence.

Japan and South Korea have “got to avert the impending Sword of Damocles,” said Daniel Sneider, lecturer in East Asian Studies at Stanford University in the US. “If the court moves ahead to seize the assets of Japanese companies, then everything breaks down,” he said, with potentially “tragic” consequences for global trade, as well as the US’s ability to defend its two allies in the event of a North Korean attack.

As calls grow for a settlement, here’s a look at the history behind the bitter feuds and why they seem so intractable.

‘Comfort women’

Japan and Korea share a long history of rivalry and war. The Japanese have repeatedly tried to invade the Korean peninsula, and succeeded in annexing and colonising it in 1910. During World War II, Japanese authorities forced tens of thousands of Koreans to work in factories and mines and sent women and girls into military brothels. A United Nations expert, in a 1996 report, said some 200,000 Korean “comfort women” were forced into a system of “military sexual slavery” and called the abuses “crimes against humanity”.

After Japan’s rule of Korea ended in 1945, the peninsula was split along the 38th parallel, with rival governments taking power in Pyongyang and Seoul. The US, which backed the government in Seoul, lobbied it for better relations with Tokyo. And after 14 years of secretive negotiations, South Korea and Japan in 1965 signed a treaty normalising relations. Under that deal, Japan agreed to provide South Korea with $500m in grants and loans and any issues concerning property, rights and interests of the two countries and their peoples were considered to “have been settled completely and finally”.

But the agreement set off mass protests in South Korea, with the opposition and student demonstrators accusing then-President Park Chung-hee of “selling away the country” for a “paltry sum”. The government imposed martial law to quash the nationwide demonstrations and went on to use the Japanese funds to kick-start South Korea’s development, including by building highways and a steel factory.

Grievances over the issue of forced labour and sexual slavery continued to fester, however.

In the early 90s, South Korean victims of forced labour, including Yang Geum-deok, filed for compensation in Japanese courts while survivors of the military brothels went public with accounts of their abuses. The Japanese courts threw out the Korean forced labour petitions, but in 1993, the Japanese chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono, publicly offered “sincere apologies and remorse” for the military’s involvement in the forced recruitment of Korean women for sex.

Two years later, Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Marayama acknowledged the suffering caused by Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression” and made a “profound apology to all those who, as wartime comfort women, suffered emotional and physical wounds that can never be closed”. He also established a fund from private contributions to compensate victims in South Korea and other Asian countries.

Japan’s apologies

But many in South Korea did not consider Japan’s remorse as sincere, and tensions flared again when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was first elected to the post in 2006, claimed there was no evidence to suggest Japan coerced Korean women into sexual slavery.

The former leader, who was assassinated in July, was of the view that Tokyo has atoned enough for its past abuses. During his second stint as prime minister, his government said the term “sexual slavery” could not be used to describe the women’s plight and disputed claims that large numbers of women were recruited as “comfort women”, saying the 200,000 figure lacked “concrete evidence”.

These statements angered South Koreans, but still, amid concerns over North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal, the government of then-President Park Geun-hye – the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee – signed a new deal with Tokyo, agreeing to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the “comfort women” issue in return for a renewed apology and a 1 billion yen (now $6.9m) fund to help the victims. At the time, 46 of the 239 women who had registered with the South Korean government were still alive in South Korea, and 34 of them received compensation.

Others condemned the deal, however, saying it had ignored their demands that Japan take legal responsibility for the atrocities and provide official reparations.

Park was later impeached and jailed for corruption, and her successor, Moon Jae-in, dismantled the fund in 2018.

It was that same year that the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to compensate Korean wartime labourers.

Japan responded furiously, calling the rulings “totally unacceptable” and removing South Korea’s favoured trade partner status and imposing export controls on chemicals vital to the Korean semiconductor industry. It also warned of “serious” ramifications should the Japanese companies’ assets be seized. Moon’s government, meanwhile, also downgraded Japan’s trade status and nearly scrapped a military intelligence pact, while South Koreans launched a boycott of Japanese goods, including the beer brand, Asahi, and the clothing company, Uniqlo.

The crisis was the worst since the two countries normalised ties.

The recent change in South Korea’s presidency, from Moon to Yoon Suk-yeol, has raised hopes of a thaw.

Two days after his election victory in March, Yoon spoke to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida about the need for the two nations to work together. Yoon promised to promote “friendly relations” while Kishida said ties between the two countries are “indispensable” at a time when the world was “confronted with epoch-making changes”.

‘Ball is in Korea’s court’

But despite the warm rhetoric, attempts to arrange a meeting between the two leaders have yet to bear fruit. Yoon invited Kishida to his inauguration, but the Japanese foreign minister attended. Similarly, an attempt at arranging a meeting during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Asia in May and a NATO meeting in June also failed.

“Japanese politicians think the ball is in Korea’s court and want to see how Yoon will handle the forced labour issue,” said Jeffrey Kingston, professor of history and Asian studies at the Temple University in Japan.

“The prevailing view is scepticism about overcoming history controversies and a feeling that Korea plays the history card to badger and humiliate Japan for colonial-era misdeeds. This feeds into a sanctimonious nationalism and condescending views towards Korea among Japanese conservatives. Basically, the costs of bad relation­s with Korea are not seen to be very high and not worth making concessions,” he said.

In a bid to find a way forward, Yoon in June convened a group of victims, experts and officials to advise the government on the forced labour issue. The group has discussed several solutions, according to local media reports, including establishing a joint fund managed by two governments using voluntary contributions from South Korean and Japanese companies to compensate the forced labour victims.

But several victims are against the idea.

“If it were about the money, I would have given up by now,” Yang Geum-deok wrote in her letter, stressing that she would “never accept” the money if “other people give it to me”.

Victims of sexual slavery, meanwhile, are appealing for a United Nations judgement on the issue.

Lee Yong-soo, who was dragged from her home at 16 and sent to a brothel in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, told the Associated Press news agency in March: “Both South Korea and Japan keep waiting for us to die, but I will fight until the very end.” She told the agency that her campaign for intervention from the UN’s International Court of Justice is aimed at pressuring Japan to fully accept responsibility and acknowledge its past military sexual slavery as war crimes.

Given the strong South Korean sentiment, Choi Eunmi, research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said it is necessary for the government in Seoul to generate greater social consensus on the importance of seeking better ties with Japan.

“It’s their task to persuade and let ordinary Korean people know why Japan is important globally and why the Korea-Japan relations should not only be focused on the past problems,” she said. At the same time, Japan also needs to do much more, she said. “Japan can’t just wait and see what the Korean side says,” she said, urging Tokyo to extend an “olive branch” to help turn public sentiment in South Korea, including by lifting some of the sanctions and restrictions on trade and tourism between the two countries.

Sneider of Stanford University also said he wished the “Japanese felt a greater sense of urgency about improving relations with Korea”. He said “real clear pressure” from the US was essential to get Japan to reciprocate the Korean desire to improve relations.

“Because in Tokyo, they don’t care nearly as much about what Koreans think as they do about what Americans think. That is a reality,” he said.