Can South Korea and Japan repair their strained relationship?

Could chilly ties between Japan and South Korea be headed for a thaw?

Signs are increasingly pointing in that direction, as both sides look to repair a relationship clouded by years of mistrust and a tumultuous past.

Earlier this month, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol revealed a plan to use a private South Korean foundation to compensate lawsuit plaintiffs in place of two firms over wartime forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula.

While South Korean firms would donate to the fund, Japan has reportedly been considering letting companies voluntarily donate so long as demands for direct payments from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel — two firms ordered by South Korea’s Supreme Court in 2018 to dole out compensation for forced labor — are dropped.

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The South Korean plaintiffs, however, have lambasted the latest mechanism and continue to seek compensation from the two companies as well as a formal apology from the government.

Though Tokyo has appeared open to the latest plan, it has repeatedly made its stance clear: All issues related to its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, including the issue of compensation for requisitioned Korean workers, were settled “completely and finally” under a bilateral agreement signed in 1965 under South Korea’s leader at the time, strongman Park Chung-hee. That agreement, which normalized relations, was accompanied by hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid and loans from Tokyo to Seoul that helped stoke South Korea’s economy.

On the Japanese side, Tokyo is reportedly considering easing export controls on high-tech materials to South Korea that have been in place since 2019, potentially returning the country to a list of nations entitled to receive preferential treatment in trade. Separately, Japan is weighing a plan to emphasize that it will maintain its position of “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” to its neighbor over its past aggression if Seoul finalizes a solution to the wartime labor issue, part of an apparent bid to ameliorate a growing backlash in South Korea over the Yoon plan.

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Such a move would essentially reaffirm Japanese government statements in 1995 and 2015 by Prime Ministers Tomiichi Murayama and Shinzo Abe, respectively.

If Seoul’s new plan gains steam and crucial public support — a big question mark, especially in South Korea — the two neighbors could put one of the most vexing issues in their bilateral relationship behind them before South Korea’s top court orders the Japanese companies’ local assets be liquidated to provide for the compensation, effectively ending the current push for rapprochement.

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