The renewed dispute between Tokyo and Seoul has been making headlines since the end of last year, when the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies must compensate four people who worked as forced laborers during the Japanese colonial era.
Many might still remember the 2015 accord between the two nations in which the Japanese government contributed US$8.3 million to fund a foundation to help comfort women and make this wartime issue “finally and irreversibly resolved” (“South Korea, Japan agree ‘comfort women’ accord,” page 1, Dec. 29, 2015).
However, Seoul dissolved the foundation this year, and Japan imposed export controls on South Korea. Many might wonder: What do the South Koreans want?
On July 20, al-Jazeera English’s news program Inside Story aired a story titled “What’s behind renewed tensions between Japan and South Korea?” featuring interviews with Japanese, South Koreans and Americans.
One of the South Korean participants said that money is not important and that all Koreans want is a sincere apology and contrition from Japan.
Out of curiosity, I looked up a “List of war apology statements issued by Japan” in Wikipedia. Among the 53 apologies issued by Japan through official statements, speeches and person-to-person talks, 18 directly refer to South Korea (four to China and two to the US).
Eleven of the 53 were apologies to comfort women. Blanket apologies aside, South Korea is the nation that has received the most apologies from Japan.
Aside from apologies issued by Japanese prime ministers, three of the apologies, surprisingly, were issued by Japanese emperors exclusively to South Korea.
South Korea appears more privileged compared with other nations that were invaded or occupied by Japan during World War II.
In the “controversy” section of the Wikipedia page, it says that in 2010, one comfort woman from Taiwan and then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) declared that the Japanese government should admit its crimes and apologize to Taiwan.
Apparently, Taiwan has received neither an apology nor compensation from Japan. Taiwanese’s favorable attitude toward Japan compared with South Korea has not been reciprocated by Tokyo politically and diplomatically. Contrary to the assertive attitude of the South Korean government, the Taiwanese government appears too soft, if not too weak.
It is also worth noting that both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China waived their rights to World War II reparations from Japan. While caught in the Chinese Civil War, both sides renounced reparations in hopes of winning diplomatic recognition from Japan. However, Vietnam and Korea — both of which were divided into a communist side and a democratic side — still claimed and received reparations from Japan without political concern like the two Chinas had.
South Korea received reparations from Japan through the Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea of 1965. In the most recent dispute, Japan has asserted that issues regarding wartime payments were settled in this treaty. However, there were twists after Seoul declassified documents in 2005 relating to the accord.
According to the declassified documents, the Japanese government had proposed compensating individual Korean victims, but the South Korean government rejected it in favor of reparations, totaling US$800 million in grants and soft loans, directly from Japan. Seoul also agreed never to ask for further compensation at both the government and individual level.
After receiving the reparation, the South Korean government mainly used it to industrialize and develop the economy with the aim of confronting North Korea, which at the time was superior to the South. One might argue that the Han-River Miracle of South Korea under then-president Park Chung-hee was built at the expense of individual rights to compensation by Korean victims of Japanese colonization.
Controversially, Park was also a dictator advocating economic development over democracy and that citizens should sacrifice themselves for the nation. Park declared martial law in 1972. The Gwangju Uprising in 1980 against martial law after the assassination of Park in 1979 claimed 606 lives that were suppressed by military troops.
Park’s ruling path was very similar to the Chiangs’ in Taiwan, except that Chiang Ching-kuo 蔣經國) contributed to some extent to the democratization of Taiwan by ending martial law. Moreover, Taiwan’s economic miracle was not dependent on Japanese aid and reparations.
Despite being a dictator and short-changing individual wartime victims, Park topped a Gallup Korean survey in 2015 on who was the best president to lead South Korea after being freed from Japanese colonization, with an approval rating of 44 percent.
The other twist over Japan’s wartime reparations, also the trigger of the latest dispute, is the landmark ruling of by the South Korean Supreme Court in October last year that Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal must compensate four South Korean forced laborers on the grounds that their individual right to reparations were not terminated by the 1965 treaty. As such, individual Koreans suing their former Japanese employers during the colonial era continues.
Although legal and factual aspects show that the South Korean government has a responsibility to some extent for compensating wartime victims, including forced labor, this has somehow been left out in the mind of the public, which regards apologies from Japan as insincere given its own account of wartime history in Japanese textbooks and Japanese leaders’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.
However, these have never become issues in Taiwan. The question is what makes South Koreans and Taiwanese so different in terms of attitudes toward Japan and the ruling class after Japanese colonization?
Wang Ching-ning is a medical information analyst and an independent researcher.
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