S.Korean victims of Japan forced labour accuse Seoul of rushing compensation

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – A group of South Korean victims of Japan’s wartime forced labour accused Seoul of rushing a compensation plan with Tokyo for diplomatic and political gains, amid a prolonged legal battle over the neighbours’ chequered history.

The two countries have been odds over a 2018 ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court that ordered Japanese firms to compensate some of the forced labourers. Fifteen South Koreans have won such cases, though no payments have been made yet.

The South Korean government unveiled a plan last month to compensate the victims through its own public foundation – instead of using funds from Japanese companies, sparking an outcry from some victims and their families.

Officials haven’t specified the total amount but plan to raise more than 4 billion won ($3.11 million).

Japan has said Seoul should present a solution to resolve the dispute over the court ruling, but declined to comment on the compensation plan and the row with the victims, calling it a domestic matter within South Korea.

Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer for several victims, said the office of President Yoon Suk-yeol and the foreign ministry are forcing the proposal despite the backlash, in order to expedite its efforts to improve ties and have a summit with Japan.

“For public reasons they’re saying the victims are old and the issue has not been resolved for too long, but I think they’re pushing to normalise relations with Japan by ending the dispute and make it a political legacy,” Lim told a news conference in Seoul.

If the government presses ahead to pay compensation on behalf of the companies, the lawyers would fight to prove its invalidity, he said.

Yoon’s office did not immediately provide comment. The foreign ministry said it would like to continue discussions and visit victims individually to find a reasonable resolution, asking for cooperation from the attorneys.

“In any case, it would bring another lengthy legal battle … and they wouldn’t be able to get the outcome according to the schedule they might have set,” Lim said.

Yang Geum-deok, who said she was coaxed by a Japanese educator to go to Japan at age 14 and forced to work for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, said she will never take any money without an apology.

Lim said any acceptable resolution should include an apology similar to one that was made in 2009 to some Chinese victims by Nishimatsu Construction Co Ltd, which acknowledged their forced labour and its “historical responsibility” and apologised to the victims and their families.

“I worked my butt off there but came home without receiving a penny or any apology,” she said. “I want an apology before I die.”

The unresolved legacy of Japan’s colonisation in 1910-45 of the Korean peninsula has long been a source of contention between Seoul and Tokyo.

Yoon, who took office in May, has vowed to boost ties with Japan and held the two countries’ first summit since 2019 in September.

($1 = 1,286.1200 won)

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Kim Coghill)