SEOUL, South Korea — “Japan should make an apology — the victims want a true apology!” stormed an angry Kim Ji-myung. “We Korean people are so ashamed of our president!”
Ms. Kim, an elementary school teacher, joined a dense crowd of demonstrators outside City Hill on Saturday. The target of their ire: South Korean conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has taken a major risk in a bid to put a final cap on a long-standing, draining feud between two of America’s most valuable East Asian allies.
Mr. Yoon detonated public anger with a March 6 diplomatic initiative to end a legal furor with Tokyo over forced labor and other abuses by Japanese occupying forces in the decades leading up to the end of World War II. Under the proposed resolution, businesses in South Korea, not Japan, will pay legal costs related to reparations for victims.
Protesters, including a contingent of hard-hat union members, held up signs saying “Yoon Suk Yeol resign” and listened to a speech from liberal opposition leader Lee Jae-myung.
With the Biden administration watching closely, Mr. Yoon visits Japan on Thursday for a summit with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida — the first such bilateral meeting since 2011. A resolution could clear the air and strengthen the three-way alliance with Washington in the face of mounting challenges from North Korea and China.
Whether Mr. Yoon will be able to sell the deal back home is another question.
Though neighboring Japan is a democracy and fellow U.S. ally, many here consider it, first and foremost, the imperial power that colonized Korea in 1910. Only in 1945 was the peninsula liberated as a byproduct of Allied victory in the Pacific War.
Some protesters held up signs emblazoned with the black-ink handprint of Ahn Jung-geun, a famed independence activist and assassin executed by Japan in 1910.
“Mr. Ahn was our hero!” stormed Lee Hae-dong, 72, a retiree. “Mr. Yoon is an anti-hero!”
Old enmities vs. new initiative
The issue Mr. Yoon sought to bury on March 6 peaked in 2018. That year, South Korean courts ordered the seizure of Japanese firms’ assets to pay off 15 South Korean workers who, without pay, had toiled for the companies during World War II.
Japan shot back that the issue of worker damages had been settled alongside a landmark 1965 diplomatic relations treaty. Then, Tokyo paid Seoul some $800 million in grants and soft loans, supposedly to settle all claims.
Yet the Seoul government at the time, run by a dictator and former Japanese collaborator, did not pay Tokyo’s settlement money to the victims. Instead, it used the funds for economic development, helping ignite South Korea’s modern powerhouse economy.
In 2005, the historical situation was redressed when South Korea paid direct compensation to tens of thousands of wartime laborers. Historical victimhood still simmered — a victimhood and sense of grievance that burst into renewed life with the 2018 court decision.
South Koreans accused Japan of having a lack of contrition and a lack of humanitarianism. Japan rejoined that Seoul Korea was failing to honor prior good-faith agreements to put the dispute behind them. Relations plummeted.
The situation frustrated multiple U.S. administrations, eager to forge a regional united front against North Korea and China. Some South Koreans also believe Washington’s backdoor promotion of bilateralism ignored Korean victimhood to advance its own interests.
With Tokyo holding firm, Mr. Yoon, who entered office in 2022, took the plunge. Under his proposal this month, the South Korean companies that benefited from the 1965 Japanese money will pay into a new fund for the victims.
The arrangement infuriated many South Koreans, especially as the last three plaintiffs — the other 12 have died and are represented by their families — angrily rejected the deal. A Gallup poll found that 59% of Koreans oppose the agreement, and Saturday’s demonstration was just the latest sign of the issue’s enduring political power.
Window of opportunity
In a city where million-people protests are not uncommon and where entire blocks can be jammed with demonstrators, the numbers outside City Hall over the weekend were modest, estimated by one police officer at 10,000. Even that estimate may be inflated: Most of the plaza was sectioned off, and traffic flowed despite the demonstration.
Moreover, just yards away were competing demonstrations – even smaller in number but equally vocal – by right-wing elements backing an accord.
The modest turnout may boost Mr. Yoon, suggesting, possibly, an easing of deeply held anti-Japanese sentiment.
Polls over the past year have shown that South Koreans are now more suspicious of China, a critical ally of North Korea, than of Japan.
Mr. Yoon may also take comfort in the diplomatic sweetener proffered in the wake of his deal: an invitation from President Biden for a state dinner in Washington next month to mark the 70th anniversary of U.S.-South Korean ties. It would be only the second state dinner of Mr. Biden’s presidency.
A resolution with Tokyo has other backers. The Japanese and South Korean business sectors have welcomed the move, a Seoul official told foreign reporters last week, as have a number of NATO powers, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Japan’s ethnic Korean community.
Mr. Yoon has made no secret of his desire to lift Japan relations from the nadir they hit under the prior Moon Jae-in administration.
“Efforts to improve relations with Japan were repeatedly emphasized on the [presidential] campaign trail,” South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told foreign reporters last week. “We would like to move forward and not let the past dominate.”
Micro and macro
“It is not a matter of whether we like Japan or not,” said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general. “We need Japan.”
On the micro level, the two countries share similar aspirations, lifestyles and values. Tourism flows are encouraging.
On the macro level, manufacturing supply chains are deeply intertwined and there are bilateral benefits from sharing intelligence on North Korea. It is not widely known, but Japan provides rear depots for the South Korea-based United Nations Command.
Weaknesses in the domestic opposition are also buoying Mr. Yoon’s gamble.
“The opposition is in disarray,” a person familiar with the 2018 legal imbroglio said.
Just prior to Saturday’s demonstration, news broke that one of Mr. Lee’s aides had committed suicide — the latest in a string of deaths related to endless corruption allegations hanging over the opposition leader’s past.
Some say the over-the-top rhetoric against Mr. Yoon — who has never enjoyed high popularity ratings — is misplaced.
“Instead of calling Yoon a sellout and a traitor, a more politically astute approach would have been to ask questions such as ‘What did Korea get out of the announcement?’” the source said.
There are hopes here that Mr. Kishida may issue yet another apology — Japan has offered more than 50 to South Korea over the decades — and announce that Japanese firms are willing to contribute to the South Korean firms’ fund for the forced laborers.
There has also been speculation that Mr. Yoon will get an invitation to the prestigious Group of Seven summit of leading industrial nations, which Japan will host in May.
Many reckon that Mr. Kishida and Mr. Biden should offer Mr. Yoon something in return for going so far out on a limb.
“Yoon has shown gutsy leadership,” Mr. Chun said. “This is like an elevator door closing: Whether it goes up or down now depends on Japan and the U.S.”
It is in all parties’ interest to cool emotions, for Japanese firms’ assets remain in the hands of the South Korean courts. The Seoul official acknowledged that despite Mr. Yoon’s initiative, the court asset seizures from 2018 have not been overturned.
“Our government has come up with a solution,” he said, but “if one month passes … the Japanese businesses will have to file another lawsuit” to prevent the permanent seizure of their assets.
Analysts say the political headache for the government will end only when remuneration is paid to the ex-laborers.
“This will take some time,” the official said.
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