For decades, Kim Jeong-ju, a Korean forced to labor for Japan in the final stages of World War II, has sought compensation for her sufferings.

Now, it looks like she may finally get it – but her struggle, and that of others who suffered similar fates, has ignited a virtual trade war between Japan and South Korea, and resultant public furies in the latter state.

Kim, 88, told her story to foreign reporters on Thursday, a day before Korean public rage with Japan is expected to peak on August 15 – Liberation Day, a public holiday that marks Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945.

Following the Allied victory, Korea was freed from 35 years of Japanese imperial rule, but was subsequently plunged deep into the Cold War. Today, amid changed political conditions, some Koreans are calling for a full-scale re-calibration of Seoul-Tokyo relations.

Protesters wearing ‘No Abe’ gear march through central Seoul. Photo: Asi Times/Andrew Salmon

Hard times

Kim was born in 1931 in the southern countryside of then-colonial Korea. In 1944, she was lured to Japan in the hope of meeting her elder sister, who had previously relocated there, and with the promise that she could continue her education.

Instead, the teenager found herself sequestered in dormitory accommodation with other Koreans and taken to work for Japanese company Fujikoshi. “We were forced to work despite our own free will,” she said in an emotive testimony.

Her job was as a machine operator. “Even back then I was just a small person, but I had to operate massive machinery,” she recalled. “The factory was so busy, the floor was covered in grease.”

She endured hunger. Breakfast was a meal of thin miso soup, lunch a piece of bread and dinner a bowl of rice with three pickles.

Conditions were martial. Workers were taught marching songs, which they were required to sing when moving between their dormitory and the plant. Due to the frequency of US air raids, workers could not remove their shoes even when off-duty, as they often had to flee to shelters.

However, tough industrial conditions were hardly a unique experience in that era. Likewise, short rations were common in Japan in 1944, as a highly effective US submarine blockade strangling Japan’s economy. And air raids were a shared terror for all.

But two factors differentiated Kim’s experience from that of other laborers in besieged Japan.

‘I was a slave’

One was confinement. “We were kept behind barbed wire,” she said. “I was a slave. We were not better than slaves!”

The other issue was remuneration – or lack thereof. After the Japanese surrender, she and her fellow Koreans were “asked to leave our money with a superintendent.” She never saw it again.

And Kim’s miseries did not end with Tokyo’s surrender.

Back home in Korea, some people, including government officials, suspected her of being a “comfort woman” – a veteran of Japan’s military brothels. Today, surviving comfort women are dubbed “grandmothers” and venerated as the saddest victims of Imperial Japan. In the immediate post-war period, attitudes were harsher.

“There was little distinction between comfort women and forced laborers. We faced enormous stigma,” she recalled. “We lived a life of suffering – we could not walk the streets with heads held high.”

Perhaps she can now, for last October, a seismic legal precedent was set.

A legal, historical, moral minefield

The issue of Japanese compensation for Korean forced labor during its 1910-1945 colonial rule may appear simple: A case of oppressor and victim. In fact, it is complex and vexing.

After more than a decade of negotiations, Japan and South Korea agreed to establish bilateral relations in 1965. Tokyo offered no apology, but alongside the related treaty, gave Korea a package of US$800 million in grants and soft loans.

As per the agreement, portions of the Japanese money were to be given to compensate forced laborers for their wartime work. However, Seoul ignored the victims. Instead, it invested the cash in national economic development, kick-stating its “economic miracle.”

Kim and many other victims engaged for decades in lawsuits, legal battles and appeals in both Japanese and South Korean courts. Last October, Korea’s Supreme Court finally found against two major Japanese companies, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel.

Tokyo, infuriated, insisted that ruling violated the 1965 treaty and demanded arbitration. Seoul refused arbitration and shot back that, under democratic divisions of power, it could not interfere with a judicial decision. It suggested both governments establish a joint compensation fund. Tokyo refused.

A senior advisor to the South Korean presidency recently briefed reporters on the nuances of the matter.

While Tokyo’s 1965 financial package did, indeed, offer back pay (albeit Seoul did not pass that money to the victims) the Supreme Court judgments were based not on the principle of compensation – for back pay – but on the principle of remuneration – for human rights abuse.

That decision was based on a  21st century, supra-national concept of human rights,  but the Supreme Court is an arm of the South Korean state – which signed the 1965 treaty. However, there is no official mechanism in the Korean constitution for the government to overturn a judicial decision.

Hence, gridlock.

The next red line for Tokyo may be the liquidation of the seized Japanese assets. Meanwhile, more lawsuits against Japanese firms await Korean courts’ judgments. Kim’s lawyer, Kim  Se-eun – no relation – now represents 54 plaintiffs.

Dispute sparks trade war

The dispute bounced from the judicial to the economic space early this year, when South Korean courts seized the assets of Japanese firms’ affiliates in Korea.

In July, Tokyo shocked Seoul by placing restrictions on the exports of key chemicals essential to South Korea’s high tech industries. Then, last week, Tokyo followed up by striking South Korea from a list of trusted export partners.

South Korea returned fire the same day, announcing the removal of Japan from its equivalent list.

Relations have sunk to their lowest ebb since 1965. South Koreans are boycotting Japanese products and protesting. Uncertainties hover over the operations of key South Korean companies and the global high-tech supply chain.

This merging of historical human rights abuses with a high-tech trade war has both pros and cons.

“Awareness of this issue has gone up, and that is a very good thing,” said Hideki Yano, a Japanese activist who has assisted Korean forced laborers. But Kim, the lawyer, warned the political and media focus on the economic dispute could suck attention from the core issue.

“I am concerned that sentiment is going sour and we might lose sight of the victims,” she said. “We are losing focus on the origin of the issue.”

Public fury

Public anger is raging against Japan. Emotions are expected to peak on Thursday when multiple demonstrations are scheduled in central Seoul.

On Wednesday, a new statue of a “comfort woman” was unveiled on Mount Namsan, a must-see stop on any Seoul tourism itinerary. Thousands – a policeman at the scene told Asia Times 3,000, though some media reported 20,000 – of citizens also demonstrated beside a similar statue set outside the Japanese embassy.

A protester wearing a T-shirt reading ‘Let’s fight to the end and win’ outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

“I think that the Japanese are very wrong,” said Cho Hyun-seong, a 19-year-old who had joined the rally with his high school history club.

It was the 1,400th weekly demonstration outside the embassy. The date – August 19 – marked the date that Kim Bok-dong, a Korean victim of the wartime brothels, first spoke out about her ordeal in 1992. She passed away earlier this year.

Yet Seoul and Tokyo had reached an agreement to “finally and irreversibly” deal with the comfort women issue in 2015. That agreement was de facto overturned by the liberal Moon Jae-in administration, citing its unpopularity with the public and the failure of the then-government to consult with the victims.

“The 2015 agreement has been investigated and it was not official reparation,” said Kim Hae-sel, a staffer at the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, an NGO that advocates for comfort women.

A protester wearing a T-shirt with the name Kim Bok-dong, a prominent former comfort woman who died this year, outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Seoul-Tokyo relations

In a political symmetry, the 2015 deal was signed by conservative ex-President Park Geun-hye, whose late father, Park Chung-hee, led the government that signed the 1965 treaty.

Park senior had served as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army and jump-started Korean economic development. However, for many South Koreans, his reputation is dire – both for his wartime collaboration and his anti-democratic policies.

But the 2015 agreement was a short-lived, single-issue deal. The court decisions on forced labor have dealt a blow to the more wide-ranging, long-lasting 1965 treaty.

In fact, dissatisfaction with the deal and the leader who signed it is leading some activists to call for a full, 21st-century reset of bilateral relations reflecting the vast shift in attitudes, development and geopolitics that has taken place in the years since.

“After the Cold War regime came to an end, a new type of agreement must be reached,” said Cho Si-hyun, a researcher at the Center for Historical Truth and Justice, an institute which researches the colonial period. “I think that is the voice of many NGOs and citizens here.”

A long, painful wait

Forced laborer Kim, though championed by civic society, has not been treated gently by her own government.

She recalled being roughly manhandled at the National Assembly during the Kim Dae-jung administration (1998-2003) after demanding official compensation from Seoul on the basis of the 1965 treaty.

“I shouted so much, [security guards] threw me to the ground,” she said. “A lawmaker said I would be paid, but I received no money.”

Still, she reserves her sharpest ire for right-wing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – a man roundly despised in South Korea for his historical revisionism.

“When I hear what Abe is saying, I feel so angry and so sad,” she said. “He has to apologize!”

That looks unlikely. However, 74 years after the end of the Pacific War, money could at last be forthcoming. The October precedent offers Kim hope that she can be compensated with assets seized from Japanese companies.

Now her case against Fujikoshi is pending and Kim, defying her advanced years, is determined to see the end game. “I will not rest in peace until my day comes,” she said.