SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s government announced a plan Monday to resolve a long-running historical division with Japan and end a complex and emotive spat over wartime forced labor that drove bilateral relations to all-time lows in 2018.
The rift between the two East Asian nations, rooted in history, culture and law, has complicated bilateral ties for decades. U.S. policymakers have tried to forge a united front with the key regional allies to address security threats from North Korea and China.
Some South Koreans are angry about abuses by Japanese occupying forces up through World War II and have protested the proposed settlement in Seoul. A leading expert warns that the resolution of the legal dispute on forced labor by political means raises serious constitutional issues.
With tensions with North Korea and China rising, the Biden administration quickly welcomed the news of a deal.
“Today’s announcements between the Republic of Korea and Japan mark a groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies,” President Biden said in a statement. The “historic” accord, he said, would make Japan and South Korea “safer, more secure and more prosperous.”
In a bit of a diplomatic fudge, compensation would come from a state-run foundation funded by civilian donations, including money from South Korean companies that benefited from past Japanese reparations payments. Japanese companies also will be encouraged to make “voluntary contributions” to the fund.
“If we compare it to a glass of water, I think that the glass is more than half full with water. We expect that the glass will be further filled moving forward based on Japan’s sincere response,” South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin told a televised news conference.
The issue was clearly not settled in South Korea. Powerful groups there have long contended that Tokyo has not done enough to atone for abuses, in particular the recruitment of South Korean “comfort women” for Japanese troops during World War II.
Lee Jae-myung of the left-wing opposition Democratic Party of Korea said the plan was “betraying historical justice” and represented “the biggest humiliation and stain in diplomatic history.”
Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer who represents some of the plaintiffs calling for more Japanese concessions, said the plan is an “absolute win by Japan, which insists it cannot spend 1 yen” on forced laborers. He told reporters in Seoul that his legal team will press ahead with a plan to effectively seize the Japanese corporate assets in South Korea to fund reparation payments.
Seoul-Tokyo relations have been bedeviled by grievances related to Imperial Japan’s rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
South Koreans say Japan has not apologized sincerely or compensated sufficiently for its brutality during the colonial period. Given the silence on wartime crimes in Japanese textbooks and the actions of some politicians, they say Japanese leaders are not contrite.
Japanese say no compensation or apologies are sufficient to satisfy Koreans, who continue to block compensation and renege on deals meant to put the conflict to rest.
In 2018, these endless rows leaped from a historical dispute into an even messier fight in the legal, economic and security domains.
South Korean courts ordered two Japanese companies, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel, to compensate Koreans who were forced to work for them during World War II. When the companies did not comply, courts seized their Korea-based assets as compensation.
Tokyo said the courts breached a landmark treaty on diplomatic normalization and ignored a related compensation deal that had stood for more than half a century.
In 1965, Japan transferred some $800 million in grants and soft loans to South Korea after years of negotiations about the amount owed to the laborers. The government in Seoul took the Japanese money but did not pay it out. Instead, it used the funds as capital to build the South Korean economy.
South Korean press reports Monday said South Korean companies that benefited from the 1965 payout, including steelmaker POSCO, will contribute to a new fund for surviving laborers. Japanese media say some Japanese companies may pay into the fund as a goodwill gesture.
The 2018 dispute showed the depth of animosity on both sides and what can happen when underlying tension erupts on the surface.
Japan slowed exports of key chemicals for South Korean industry and removed Seoul from its list of preferential trade partners. South Korea retaliated by removing Japan from its trade “white list,” and citizens organized boycotts of Japanese products.
Just hours after the proposal was reported Monday, South Korean and Japanese trade officials simultaneously announced plans for talks to restore their trade relations. The South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said it would suspend its case before the World Trade Organization over the Japanese trade curbs, The Associated Press reported.
Prior to the forced-labor clash, the left-wing administration of President Moon Jae-in in Seoul and the right-wing government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo were already at daggers drawn.
In a 2015 deal, Abe issued an apology and offered a monetary payment to Korean “comfort women,” who served in Japanese military brothels, often by coercion or trickery. Most surviving women accepted the deal, but the Moon administration froze the fund because of opposition from a small but vocal group of victims.
The bad blood even spilled into the security realm.
A Japanese warship left a South Korean naval review because of disputes over its “Rising Sun” ensign. A patrolling South Korean destroyer then lit up a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft with its target radar, which it insisted was buzzing it. A subsequent move by South Korea to withdraw from a U.S.-South Korean-Japanese intelligence-sharing pact was halted under pressure from Washington.
Improving relations with Japan was a central campaign promise of Mr. Yoon, who was elected to succeed Mr. Moon last year. After almost a year of diplomatic bargaining, Mr. Yoon appears to have delivered, but the deal is not done.
Some say the agreement will still be tested, given the depth of animosity in some pockets of South Korean society.
“Moon and Abe really screwed things up,” said Haruko Satoh, who teaches Japanese relations with Asia at the Osaka School of International Public Policy. “Now people on both sides think the other side is being unreasonable, and getting them to bring down their fists won’t be easy.”
South Korean media say some of the forced laborers and the civic groups and umbrella unions that support them have already come out against the deal.
“People want a solution, but this looks like just another top-down decision,” said Park Dong-suk, an expert on Japanese-Korean ties who studied international relations at Seoul’s Sogang University. “These resolutions have not worked in the past, so why should they work now?”
Some say that, given the supposed firewall between political and judicial spheres, Mr. Yoon’s deal may not pass constitutional muster.
“There are no precedents for this,” said Shin Hee-seok, a legal adviser to the Transitional Justice Working Group, a nongovernmental organization. “So there are constitutional questions hanging over it.”
Mr. Shin said the legal road ahead is unclear. “Korean judges are very cautious now. They underestimated what a big issue this would be,” he said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.