South Korea's Foreign Ministry said it considers proposals for a South Korean foundation to compensate plaintiffs on behalf of Japanese corporate defendants over wartime labor issues as the best possible option for resolving the matter, during a public hearing held Thursday.
The public hearing, hosted by the ministry to discuss wartime labor issues stemming from Japan's colonial-era rule of the Korean Peninsula, was organized to find a way to compensate South Koreans following 2018 Supreme Court rulings that ordered two Japanese companies to pay damages to the plaintiffs.
Seo Min Jung, the ministry's Asia Pacific bureau chief, said it is difficult to make the Japanese companies pay damages to the plaintiffs but stressed Japan should pass on its apology and remorse about colonial rule, which it has expressed to South Korea, to future generations.
After the 2018 rulings, South Korean courts have ordered the liquidation of local assets seized from the two Japanese companies, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon Steel Corp., which were sued over alleged forced labor during the 1910-1945 colonial period.
The hearing on Thursday was co-hosted by the ministry and the head of the South Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union, a bipartisan group.
Chung Jin Suk, the head of the bipartisan group and a close aide to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, said during the public hearing that he will go to Japan soon and meet senior officials of the Japanese government, adding he will explain to them the South Korean stance on the issue.
The director of the foundation affiliated with the South Korean government also said during the public hearing that he seeks understanding on the option from the public.
In a response to the event in Seoul, a Japanese government source said Tokyo is considering allowing Japanese firms to donate to the South Korean foundation.
But Japan plans to make it a condition that demands for money from Mitsubishi Heavy and Nippon Steel are given up, according to the source.
Although the plaintiffs have urged the Japanese side to apologize for the wartime labor, the source said the government is unlikely to do so and it is expected to stand by its past statements on its colonial rule.
Several plaintiffs have expressed their opposition to the South Korean government's idea that the foundation compensates them, and a civic group on Thursday held a protest against the public hearing, saying that it does not reflect the forced labor victims' opinions.
The civic group supporting plaintiffs living in the southeastern city of Gwangju said Wednesday it decided not to participate in the hearing as the victims were excluded from the event and no information was shared with them.
"We will fight until the day when the forced labor victims finally recover their rights and dignity...through a sincere apology and compensation from the Japanese government and related (Japanese) firms," an official from the civic group said during the protest Thursday.
The issue of compensation has contributed to the deterioration of bilateral relations to the worst level in decades. Japan maintains that all claims stemming from its colonial rule were settled "completely and finally" under a 1965 bilateral agreement.
But Yoon has pledged to take a future-oriented approach toward Japan since he assumed office last May, in an effort to improve bilateral ties.
Yoon met Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in November on the fringes of regional summits held in Cambodia, with the two agreeing to work toward an early settlement of issues over wartime labor and disagreements around claims about women who worked in Japan's military brothels during the war.
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