A South Korean government's solution to a wartime labor issue with Japan is realistic but unlikely to fundamentally fix the long-standing thorny problem between the two countries, foreign affairs experts said.
South Korea's decision, announced Monday, centers on a government-backed foundation paying compensation to Korean plaintiffs instead of requiring two Japanese companies to do so, as had been ordered by South Korean court rulings in 2018.
Tokyo, however, is still worried that Seoul may abruptly overturn the plan, as the neighbor has violated bilateral promises in consideration of anti-Japan public opinion, basically helping push up the approval ratings of the nation's administration.
But Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government should try to deepen cooperation with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol if Tokyo is keen to build normal and healthy ties with Seoul for future generations, the experts said.
South Korea unveiled the solution as Tokyo-Seoul relations have shown signs of improving since Yoon took office in May 2022, pledging to take a future-oriented approach toward Japan.
During the five-year tenure of Yoon's predecessor Moon Jae In, ties between Tokyo and Seoul reached their lowest point in years over wartime labor and other disputes, including a territorial row in the Sea of Japan.
In separate rulings in 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered two Japanese firms -- Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon Steel Corp. -- to pay damages to former Korean laborers and their relatives over alleged forced labor during World War II.
The companies have refused to comply with the requests, as Tokyo has said all issues stemming from Japan's 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula were settled "completely and finally" under a 1965 bilateral agreement.
Under the South Korean government's solution, Seoul has voiced hope that Japanese firms will voluntarily contribute to the foundation, but it is believed that Tokyo did not guarantee Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel would join the entity.
Also, Japan has issued no fresh apology for its colonial rule of its neighbor, making it clear that Tokyo stands by previous government statements that expressed remorse over its wartime aggression in Asia.
Susumu Kohari, a professor at the University of Shizuoka, said the solution mapped out by South Korea "has given an impression that Yoon's administration has made concessions," adding Japan has refused to pay compensation or apologize again.
The solution has triggered a strong backlash in South Korea. Before its announcement, a public poll in South Korea in January showed that 64 percent of the respondents opposed the solution, with just 23 percent favoring it.
Meanwhile, South Korean media said business groups from the two countries will create a "future youth fund" to promote exchanges among young people through means such as student scholarships.
The groups are the Federation of Korean Industries, a major South Korean business lobby, and its Japanese equivalent, the Japan Business Federation. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel are members of the organization known as Keidanren.
"As a result, the Japanese corporate defendants will participate in" the framework of the solution, said Kohari, an expert on Korean studies, adding that establishing the foundation is a realistic manner for Tokyo and Seoul to resolve the wartime labor spat.
Tokyo eventually decided to allow the nation's companies to voluntarily donate to the foundation if Seoul retracted its demand for payment from the two defendant firms, according to Japanese government sources.
Nevertheless, Kohari said, technically, the right to compensation has not been abandoned.
In the past, both Japan and South Korea had agreed to settle the so-called comfort women matter "finally and irreversibly," but the accord was effectively scrapped unilaterally by Moon's government in 2019, infuriating Japan.
South Korea claims Koreans were forced to work as "comfort women" in Japanese wartime military brothels.
Kohari said there is concern among Japanese government officials and ruling lawmakers that the wartime labor issue might follow the same pattern as the comfort women quarrel if an anti-Japan administration is launched in South Korea in the future.
"Because the president is Mr. Yoon," who is eager to improve South Korea's bilateral relations with Japan, Seoul made the latest decision on the wartime labor dispute, Kohari said, adding Tokyo should emphasize this fact.
Kohari said Japan should take steps that would enable Yoon's government to receive a high rating in his country, which would, in turn, boost the political foundation of his administration and stabilize ties between Tokyo and Seoul in the long run.
For example, the measures include lifting export restrictions on semiconductor material to South Korea imposed since July 2019 and returning the nation to a "white list" of trusted trade partners as soon as possible, he said.
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