February 14, 2023
SEOUL – The South Korean government is increasing its efforts to end the long-running historical dispute with Japan over restitution to Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II, but Japan shows little sign of offering what the victims have long sought: a direct apology and compensation.
Cho Hyun-dong, Korea’s first vice foreign minister, was less optimistic of a “quick resolution” to the dispute than before, saying Sunday it was “too early to tell” about a settlement within this month, at a briefing before boarding a plane to the US on a previously scheduled trip to meet with his US and Japanese counterparts.
“Senior-level dialogue will take place to reach an agreement,” Cho told reporters, referring to a potential one-on-one meeting between Foreign Minister Park Jin and Yoshimasa Hayashi, his Japanese counterpart, to be held this weekend on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. The three-day annual gathering of decision-makers on security policy starts Friday, with Park citing an “opportunity” to meet with Hayashi there.
Behind the feud that has long strained ties are seemingly unworkable differences over how to strike a compromise. Fully aware of Tokyo’s unwillingness to honor a ruling from Seoul’s top court in 2018 that ordered Japan to compensate the victims directly, Korea is leaning toward using its own sources of money. A direct apology to the victims — another condition Japan says is nonnegotiable — is also essentially off the table, according to Korea’s chief negotiator.
Even so, Japan is reluctant to shake hands on what Korea has brought to the table, making compromises increasingly elusive. The Korean victims have long criticized Seoul-Tokyo talks, calling on Seoul to take a harder line with Tokyo. Korea’s chief negotiator has essentially chosen not to pursue such an “unrealistic” diversion.
For the Yoon Suk Yeol administration, which took power in May last year with a promise to get tough on North Korea, the conservative Korean leader needs Japan’s support more than ever to live up to his pledge. Tokyo is part of a three-way military coalition that includes the two neighbors and the US, and with Washington still distancing itself from the dispute, Seoul is left alone to make peace with its Asian rival, if it wants a bigger say in how the coalition works.