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International relations

Seoul weighs compensation fund for wartime laborers

Proposal calls for both South Korea and Japan to contribute

Kim Seong-ju, who was forced to work during the Japanese colonial period, is surrounded by the media as she arrives in front of the Supreme Court in Seoul on Nov. 29.    © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean officials are considering a proposal to create a foundation for compensating Koreans pressed into labor in wartime Japan and may call on Japanese companies to contribute to the fund.

The discussions in President Moon Jae-in's government follow rulings by South Korea's Supreme Court upholding wartime workers' compensation claims against Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

It remains unclear how much support such a proposal would find in Japan, whose official position holds that these claims were resolved decades ago. Distrust has mounted in Tokyo after Moon's recent decision to disband a foundation that the two governments agreed to create to support wartime "comfort women."

A lawyer for plaintiffs in the wartime labor case has proposed that both governments contribute to a compensation fund, as well as Japanese and South Korean companies. The South Korean companies would consist mainly of groups like steelmaker Posco that benefited from Japanese economic aid provided after a landmark 1965 bilateral agreement.

South Korea's government recognizes 220,000 victims of wartime labor. The compensation verdicts upheld by the Supreme Court in recent weeks amount to about 100 million won ($89,000) per plaintiff.

A Japanese ruling coalition lawmaker said Japan's government would have "no obligation" to contribute to a fund for wartime laborers, having paid out $500 million in economic aid following the 1965 agreement on wartime claims.

Past South Korean administrations have held that this agreement resolved individual claims by wartime laborers. The aid is credited with helping ignite the economic growth the catapulted South Korea into the ranks of high-tech exporters -- the so-called miracle on the Han River.

Some argue that the South Korean government, having received the aid, should compensate victims itself.

But that would risk putting Moon's administration on the wrong side of South Korean public opinion, which favors holding the Japanese responsible for wartime misdeeds. Moon has said he will respect the Supreme Court rulings. Nippon Steel has yet to indicate whether it will comply with the ruling in its case.

Japan and South Korea set up a fund to compensate wartime comfort women following a landmark 2015 agreement negotiated by Moon's predecessor Park Geun-hye. But last month, Moon announced that the fund, to which Japan had contributed 1 billion yen ($8.9 million at current rates), would be disbanded over the objections of Tokyo.

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