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Korean wartime forced laborers still seeking apology, reparations from Japan

By Thomas Maresca
1/5
Korean wartime forced laborers still seeking apology, reparations from Japan
South Korean protesters take a part in demonstrations in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Wednesday. Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI | License Photo

SEOUL, Aug. 14 (UPI) -- While a trade dispute between Japan and South Korea sparked by the issue of wartime forced labor rages on, many of those at the center of the controversy are still waiting for compensation and something equally important: a sincere apology from Japan.

"I have all this anger and sadness in me," 88-year-old Kim Jeong-ju, who was a victim of forced labor in World War II, told reporters on Wednesday in Seoul. "I did not ask to be brought to Japan. Maybe [Japanese] Prime Minister Abe will come to his senses. I want to hear him say 'I'm sorry.'"

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In early 1945, a 14-year-old Kim was brought to the Japanese city of Toyama under false pretenses, believing she would be able to continue her education there. Instead, she became a member of what was called the Women's Volunteer Labor Corps and was immediately forced to work for no pay at a munitions factory run by manufacturer Fujikoshi Corp.

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Kim described the conditions as horrific. She was constantly hungry due to starvation-level rations and slept with her shoes on every night for fear of having to evacuate because of air raids.

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"I was so small I had to stand on two boxes to operate the machinery," she said.

Last year, South Korea's Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies must provide compensation to their victims of forced labor such as Kim.

In two cases involving over a dozen South Korean plaintiffs, the court ruled that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. must pay reparations ranging from about $70,000 to over $125,000.

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Earlier this year, South Korean courts also approved the seizure of assets in South Korea belonging to Nippon Steel and Fujikoshi Corp., moves that Japan has called unlawful.

The decisions inflamed diplomatic tensions and many believe they were the cause for a series of retaliatory trade moves from Japan .

At the beginning of August, Japan removed Korea from its "white list" of preferred trade partners, following a move in July to tighten export restrictions on three key materials used in South Korea's high-tech manufacturing industry.

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Japan has long argued that all wartime reparations claims were settled by a 1965 bilateral treaty that normalized relations between the two countries, part of which entailed a $300 million grant in economic aid and some $500 million in development loans.

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However, South Korea's courts have ruled that the deal did not address the human rights violations that the victims suffered.

Kim said the effects from her wartime forced labor carried over into her life after she returned to Korea. She was seen by some neighbors as having been a "volunteer" to help Japan in its war efforts and was assumed by many to have also been a comfort woman, the term used for those forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese troops.

"We [returned laborers] faced an enormous stigma," she said. "I went through so much hardship and pain. I was not able to maintain a normal life."

The South Korean government has made previous rounds of compensation to some victims and surviving family members, and certain local governments have provided small stipends for victims of forced labor, but advocates say those efforts do not address the deeper issue of reparations.

"What the Korean government paid was not restitution under international law," said Cho Si-hyun, researcher at the Seoul-based Center for Historical Truth and Justice. "It was victims' assistance paid by the government. This is not money paid as acknowledgement of a legal liability, it was just a way to ease pain for humanitarian purposes."

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Cho said that genuine reparations would include not only monetary compensation but an apology from Japan and efforts to develop historical and educational resources.

Wednesday was also an official national memorial day for Korea's comfort women, with a government ceremony to honor the victims and the unveiling of a new statue in Seoul's Namsan Park.

President Moon Jae-in said in a statement that South Korea would increase its efforts to raise international awareness of the issue.

"The government will do its best to restore [the victim's] dignity and honor," he said. "We will share the issue of sexual enslavement by the Japanese Imperial Army as a message of peace and women's rights and further disseminate it among the international community."

A long-running demonstration held outside the Japanese Embassy in downtown Seoul drew thousands of participants to the 1,400th consecutive weekly rally calling for the Japanese government to accept full legal responsibility for the comfort women issue.

"What the victims have been demanding are a formal apology and legal reparations," said Kum Hae-sel, a coordinator for The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. "There should be an official bill passed in the Japanese parliament."

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In 2015, Abe and the since impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye come to an agreement in which Abe apologized and Japan contributed some $8 million to set up a foundation to support the victims. However, in 2017, Moon declared negotiations had serious flaws and said the agreement "does not resolve the issue over comfort women."

Kim Se-eun, a lawyer working on cases of forced mobilization, said that the economic trade dispute between Japan and South Korea has brought increased attention to the issue of wartime reparations, but expressed caution that the victims not be overlooked.

"I'm worried that as the issue escalates and relations grow sour, we might lose sight of the victims," she said. "We are focusing on the economy but these people are the origin of the issue. And victims say the first thing they want to get is a sincere apology."

Almost 75 years after she was forced to work in Japan, Kim Jeong-ju said she has received no compensation and is still waiting to hear the word "sorry."

"I need an apology, I need indemnity for my suffering," she said. "I will not rest in peace until the day comes."

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