WWII South Korean force labour victims demand apology

SEOUL, 17 Feb 2023:

Several South Korean victims of Japan’s wartime forced labour have rejected a compensation plan by the two countries – demanding a sincere apology from Japanese companies that enslaved them.

Yang Geum-deok was 13 when she was lured into going to Japan for higher studies in 1944 during World War II.

The teenager left her home province of Jeolla in the peninsula’s southeast to Nagoya in central Japan. Instead of studying, she worked at a Mitsubishi plant – without pay – until the end of the war.

Yang, 92, was one of the millions of Koreans subjected to forced labour to work for Japan’s military industry as the war drew to a close.

Yang spoke at a press conference organised by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Seoul yesterday.

She said she had never heard of Nagoya before she was duped into a false promise of better education.

“I ended up working for a Mitsubishi aircraft factory. They made me paint and clean the planes,” Yang told reporters.

She said 138 girls from her native province were sent from Korea to work there. “I worked almost to death, and they never paid me. And they never apologised to me.”

In 2018, the South Korean supreme court ordered Japanese companies Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to compensate South Korean citizens who were forced into unpaid labour during World War II.

Japan had argued that compensation for more than a million victims enslaved by Japanese companies was settled as per the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations.

Japan donated US$300 million to the neighbouring country per the treaty.

Japan imposed trade restrictions on South Korea amid a possibility that courts may seize the assets of South Korean subsidiaries of these Japanese companies to compensate the victims, which deteriorated bilateral ties in 2019.

Seoul and Tokyo have been working to improve ties and end the controversial issue since president Yoon Suk-yeol came to power in May last year.

The issue is one of the main stumbling blocks to better ties between the two countries.

The governments are considering a plan to create a fund in which some Korean companies that received the money transferred by Tokyo in 1965 could contribute to compensate the victims.

Some of the victims have welcomed the plan. However, many, like Yang, rejected the proposal.

Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer for several South Korean victims of forced labour at Nippon Steel, said they wanted an apology.

“The plaintiffs want an apology, even those who agree with the current government plan,” the lawyer said.

Lim alleged the South Korean foreign ministry was trying to hasten up the process, which includes trying to meet with the victims without their lawyers.

He said the South Korean government wanted to score political mileage by repairing ties with Tokyo, acknowledging that “a long legal battle” lay ahead of them.