October 6th, 6:08 a.m. Ha Jeom-yeon, a Korean victim of Japanese military’s wartime sexual slavery passed away. October 30th, South Korean Supreme Court delivered a final verdict ordering the steelmaker Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal (NNSM) Corporation to compensate for South Koreans forced to wartime labor.
In between the two timelines, South Korean and Japanese foreign ministry officials discussed over the “2015 agreement,” signed on Japan’s wartime sexual slavery, which continuously stayed controversial with its inadequate apologies.
Like it or not, the former Park administration signed the agreement and received the 1 billion yen (U.S. $8.9 million) to support victimsit is something that cannot be simply taken back. Although the Moon administration hinted it plans to return this “donated” money and cover the expense for “Reconciliation and Healing Foundation on Korean sex slaves during World War II” on its own budget, assuming from the fact that none of the results were revealed, the meeting probably did not reach any compromise. Amidst no results from the discussion on the matter, the Supreme Court delivered a verdict on NNSM Corporation a week later.
Japan Foreign Minister quoted South Korea Supreme Court’s decision as “very regrettable and totally unacceptable.” The already complicated diplomatic relationship has become even more tumultuous.
But let’s face it. The biggest reason that we have not been able to take the controversies between the two countries to the International Court is because S. Korea’s stance is that these are not even a matter that should be subjected to decision in court. The damages caused by the brutal colonial rule of Japan are very evident as it still continues to this day and those who survived the time testified on what they had to go through. Also, we should also be aware that once S. Korean government agrees to file a case to international court, the government has the obligation to follow the final statement, no matter how unreasonable the final verdict is.
Taking issues to international court is thus a matter that should be dealt with great delicacy, considering many different aspects that the dispute will imply. But the matter on victims of forced labor during the Japanese occupation is on a different road. It’s not merely about clarifying the damages of the victims or the responsibilities to compensate but is more about to what extent the previous treaties and agreements entail.
1965 Korea-Japan bilateral treaty is what Japanese government considers to have the effect to terminate all rights of victims to require compensation. However, we should keep in mind that the bilateral accord was settled in 1965, only 20 years after the colonial rule ended. The harsh labors forced by the Japanese government were not publicly known as well as it is now and nor did it cover issues on Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women. Considering these backgrounds, can the 1965 normalization of diplomatic relations be a valid one to this day? And is it the S. Korean supreme court “shaking the legal ground of friendly, cooperative ties between the two nations”?
The court decision will inevitably lead to diplomatic clashes, exacerbating relationships. Japanese officials had already expressed their disappointment on the final verdict. Tokyo may bring the case to International Court of Justice (ICJ) and when this happens, S. Korean government should be fully prepared to deliver the stance of individual victims to the international society. It should not be handled in a rush, but should be handled promptly.
Government data show that the number of survivors of forced labor victims is dropping sharply every year and the number of officially registered surviving victims of wartime sexual slavery is now 27 out of 240. It is time for us to let the victims’ voices be heard to the international society. The victims are still suffering and no treaty should hinder their seeking for compensation.