Eyes are on whether the so-called Moon Hee-sang Initiative will help make a breakthrough in the issue of compensation for wartime forced laborers, which has dragged the South Korea-Japan relations to their worst since the establishment of diplomatic relations. Both countries are positively considering the initiative proposed by the South Korean National Assembly Speaker that works toward voluntarily raising funds from businesses and people from the two countries.
The “1+1+α” initiative proposed early this month by National Assembly Speaker Moon in Japan practically exempts Japan from the civil liability by establishing the “Remembrance, Reconciliation, and Future” foundation and voluntarily raising funds from businesses and people from both countries. The foundation is an upgrade from the one established in 2014 to provide financial support to the victims of wartime forced labor. Once the initiative is approved, the funds collected can be used to compensate the victims instead of through the sales of frozen assets. Each of the 1,500 victims will be given 200 million won from this 300 billion-won fund.
Speaker Moon is preparing to co-sponsor a bill with 10 lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties around mid-December. Tokyo is expressing support for his approach by sending a member of the Korea-Japan Legislature Association to Moon as a secret envoy. Although time is running short, their efforts could bear fruit at the next month’s bilateral summit.
But there still remain some problems to be resolved, including resistance from some of the victims. Some victims criticized Speaker Moon for pardoning Japan with businesses’ and people’s money and eliminating the victims instead of righting the past wrongs of oppression. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is supportive of the initiative while the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry continues its hardline approach to trade restrictions. For its part, Japan should actively work toward resolving the compensation issue as well as removing trade restrictions.
The ongoing dispute between South Korea and Japan, which was triggered by a South Korean Supreme Court ruling over wartime labor in October 2018, has expanded to economy and security, when Japan restricted exports of high-tech materials to South Korea in July and South Korea withdrew from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in August, respectively. The bilateral relations cannot move forward without resolving the issue of wartime forced labor. Critics say the two countries cannot afford to let the situation continue any longer since both economies and the bilateral relations as security partners have been significantly damaged. The continued dispute paused for a moment when South Korea conditionally extended the military information sharing pact with Japan. Both countries should take the Moon Hee-sang initiative as an opportunity to turn the situation around. They should continue the talks by putting any idea that could lead to resolution onto the negotiating table.