After Seoul’s Supreme Court today ordered a Japanese steelmaker to compensate four South Koreans for wartime labor,  Tokyo, which insists the issue was settled by a 1965 bilateral treaty and multi-million dollar compensation package, has reacted furiously.

South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld a 2013 lower-court judgment that ordered Nippon Steel and Sumimoto Metal Corp (NSSM) to pay 100 million won ($88,000) each to four former steelworkers who 13 years ago launched a legal claim for compensation and unpaid wages.

The long-running, high-profile lawsuit was launched against NSSM in 2005. Today, 98-year-old Lee Choon-shik is the sole surviving plaintiff. In a top-of-bulletin televised press conference, Lee said, after the judgment, that he was “sad to be alone,” but that, “it is “heartbreaking to see this today.”

Despite the modest sum awarded by the court, the issue has tremendous political significance. In Japan, where the judgment had been awaited with bated breath, reaction was immediate.  The company said the verdict was “deeply regrettable” but that it would wait for a government response before responding further.

It did not have to wait long.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – widely perceived in Korea as a hard-right nationalist – spoke on the issue before the Diet. He called the decision “impossible under international law” and said that “the government of Japan will handle the situation with firmness.”

Foreign Minister Taro Kono rolled out the big guns. Japan will take “every option under consideration” he said, including taking the issue to the International Court of Justice.  For that to happen, South Korea would have to agree, but if Seoul refused, it would hand Japan a moral victory.

“The ruling not only puts a Japanese company at an undue disadvantage, but also shakes the legal foundations of the friendship and cooperation that has existed between Japan and South Korea since 1965 when their ties were normalized,” Kono said in a televised briefing.

He also summoned Seoul’s ambassador to Japan to lodge a complaint, and said his ministry would establish a special office to deal with ever-problematic relations between Japan and South Korea.

Japanese media reported that Japanese officials had tried to call related Korean officials, but the latter had not answered the telephone. Even so, it is not clear what the Seoul government can do, given that there are separation of powers between judiciary and executive.

The big question now hanging over the issue is whether the South Korean court will implement the nuclear option and order a seizure of assets from NSSM to pay the plaintiffs.

Lee Choon-shik, a victim of forced labor by Japan during its colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, sits in the Supreme Court in Seoul on October 30, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ed Jones
Lee Choon-shik, a victim of forced labor by Japan during its colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, sits in the Supreme Court in Seoul on October 30, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ed Jones

Given the troubled history – and perhaps more importantly, the way history has been so frequently raised as an issue between the two countries – the likelihood of that step cannot be dismissed. Should it be taken, diplomatic – and possibly commercial – relations between Japan and South Korea could plunge to a new low.

But when it comes to Japan-South Korea relations, new lows are constantly plumbed.

Troubled history….

Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945. During the 1937-45 Pacific War, tens of thousands of Koreans served in the Imperial armed forces – but tens of thousands more worked for Japanese enterprises, both in the Japanese homeland and around the so-called Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, Japan’s wartime imperium.

Among the latter were forced laborers and “comfort women” – Korean women and girls who were in many cases coerced, tricked or trafficked into the military brothels. After Japan was defeated by the Allied powers in 1945, many Korean workers found their wartime scrip worthless.

It was not until 1965 that Seoul and Tokyo opened diplomatic relations. At that time, Tokyo provided Seoul with some $800 million in soft loans and grants. In 2005, documents released by Seoul revealed that during the bilateral discussions surrounding the normalization treaty and the monetary package, Seoul had agreed that there would be no further claims at the national or individual level for compensation from Japan, supporting a contention that Tokyo frequently makes, that the 1965 agreement settled the matter once and for all.

In Seoul, the 1965 agreement was negotiated under the administration of President Park Chung-hee – a former Korean general who started out as a young officer in the wartime Japanese Army, and who was educated at the elite Tokyo Military Academy.

However, Park’s government passed on none of the compensation to wartime victims. Instead, it used it for economic development, contributing to the “Miracle on the Han” – the fast-track process which lifted Korea from poverty-ravaged agrarian backwater to prosperous industrial powerhouse.

Despite his remarkable success on the economic front, Park – who was assassinated in 1979 – is today widely reviled in South Korea for being a Japanese collaborator in his youth, and as an authoritarian who ruthlessly suppressed democracy during his presidency. His daughter, Park Geun-hye, became president in 2013 but is even more despised: she is now serving a 33-year jail term after being impeached in 2017 in a scandal that blended corruption with abuse of power.

Japanese firms were key investors, joint venture partners and contributors of industrial advice in South Korean in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. South Korea won democracy in 1987, and by the 1990s, was no longer reliant upon Japanese capital or investments. In the 1990s, as South Korea cast off the authoritarian habits of yore, civic groups blossomed and victims of Japanese imperialism – notably comfort women and forced laborers – began speaking up and rallying support.

They found a willing audience.

…troubled historiography

During the colonial era, the Korean population rose and lifespans increased. Japan invested heavily in its colony: education expanded and the country was radically modernized in terms of infrastructure, industry and even popular culture. It experienced virtually no fighting – certainly not on the scale of destruction and killing that would subsequently visit the peninsula during the 1950-53 Korean War.

But Koreans are taught – via education, museum exhibits, media and popular culture – that the colonial era was the darkest period in their national history. Its most exploitative and brutal elements – such as the requirements for Koreans to take Japanese names and to study the Japanese language, the Japanese acquisition of Korean cultural treasures, and of course, the comfort women and forced labor issues, are focused upon, while independence fighters are mythologized.

Although China suffered far more than any other nation at Japanese hands in the 20th century, South Korea has been Japan’s most vocal critic on historical issues. In Korean fora today, even-handed discussion of the colonial period is rare. In an extreme case, in 2014, an elderly Korean man was murdered in a central Seoul park by a man in his 30s for praising Japanese rule.

In international fora, a different dynamic has appeared. Under this, Japan apologizes, compensates or offers to compensate. These gestures are rejected by Korean civic groups. The groups’ complaints are amplified by media – particularly if and when Japanese officials make visits to the controversial Yasukuni War Shrine, talk down wartime atrocities, or when Japanese school textbooks downplay these issues.

The joy of Japan-bashing 

The left-leaning Moon Jae-in administration, which took power in 2017, has taken a hard line against Japan on issues related to the past.

It has ceased to observe a 2015 bilateral agreement on the comfort women, which included an Abe apology and compensation – even though a majority of surviving comfort women accepted it at the time. Tokyo insists that the agreement was final and binding; Seoul cites public dissatisfaction.

Seoul also ordered a Japanese warship attending a Korean naval review not to flying its ensign – which resembles the Pacific War-era battle flag – even though the ensign had not been an issue at two previous reviews. That led to the withdrawal of the vessel.

And earlier this month, a group of Korean lawmakers visited Dokdo – a Korea-occupied duo of islets that Japan claims under the name of Takeshima – in a move that predictably infuriated Tokyo.

There is now concern in some Japanese media that the Moon administration might even go so far as to call in to question the entire 1965 agreement.

Experts in Seoul see no likelihood of improvements between Northeast Asia’s democratic neighbors.

“It is unfortunate, but it will impact Korea-Japan relations negatively,” said James Kim of Seoul think tank the Asan Institute. “As if the relations are not soured already.”

Moreover, a key regional arbitrator is no longer taking an interest: the Obama administration sought to keep Seoul and Tokyo engaged in order to present a united front against North Korea, but that no longer appears to be a priority for today’s more tactically-minded Washington.

“The Trump administration’s approach to this region is very different to its predecessor’s: it is taking a bilateral, chimney-stack approach to the two bilateral alliance relations in the region and that means the US has less interest in maintaining ties between Tokyo and Seoul,” Kim said. “It has gone very bad very quickly and for as long as the US maintains that approach to regional dynamics, I don’t see it getting better.”

“We have to separate the government position versus private people’s positions,” said Hong Hyung-taek, executive director of the East Asian Foundation. “The people’s position has been well displayed by continuous protests, while the whole decision-making regarding the opening of relations in 1965 has not been well explained.”

He added that the Korean public tends to be infuriated by Japanese government officials who make offensive remarks about history, while the Japanese government sticks to its positions that all matters have been resolved by government-to-government agreements.

As a result of the latest furor, Hong said, “I don’t know what is going to happen.”