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Japan-South Korea rift

South Korea drops bill addressing wartime labor dispute with Japan

Victim compensation legislation seen as a compromise fails to move forward

Lee Choon-shik, center, was among those forced into wartime labor during Japan's colonial period.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean lawmakers on Wednesday quietly abandoned proposed legislation intended to resolve the wartime labor dispute that has erupted with Japan.

The two bills submitted to the National Assembly would have established a joint fund to compensate Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II. The idea received a degree of support from the Japanese side as well.

But neither bill was put up for debate. Members of the National Assembly met Wednesday for the final session of their term without discussing the legislation. Based on constitutional and procedural precepts, the bills will expire when the current legislative calendar ends on May 29.

The wartime labor issue reignited in 2018 when South Korea's supreme court ordered Japan's Nippon Steel to compensate former victims. The courts also ruled against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and machinery maker Nachi-Fujikoshi.

The Japanese government denounced the decision, saying that it violates international law. Tokyo also cites a 1965 treaty between the two countries that waived wartime claims in exchange for $800 million in grants and loans to South Korea.

In December, National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang submitted two bills that would preserve the spirit of the 1965 treaty. One bill, the Remembrance, Reconciliation, and Future Foundation Act, would set up a compensation fund financed by donations from corporations and individuals from both Japan and South Korea.

When Takeo Kawamura, Japan's former chief cabinet secretary, visited South Korea in January, Moon told him he expects the legislation to pass after the general election in April. Kawamura serves as a senior official on the Japan-South Korea Parliamentarians' Union.

But the bills were never brought up for a committee hearing. Groups representing former wartime laborers expressed support for the legislative proposals. But the plaintiffs in the court cases in question demanded a fact-finding probe against Japanese businesses, along with an official apology from the companies.

The chances that the bills will be submitted in the next legislative session are slim. Nine of the 14 cosponsors of the proposals, including Moon Hee-sang, will step down during the transition.

Around the time the bills were introduced, Japan loosened the export restrictions to South Korea to ease bilateral tensions.

In late December, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met officially with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sideline of the trilateral summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang held in Chengdu, China. Abe and Moon confirmed that the two sides plan to continue discussing a resolution for the wartime labor controversy.

What comes next will depend on whether South Korean courts will allow the liquidation of Japanese corporate assets seized by the plaintiffs. Stalled efforts toward a political and diplomatic resolution would pave the way for those legal proceedings to move forward.

Separately on Wednesday, South Korean prosecutors conducted a nighttime raid on the Seoul offices for a group advocating for wartime "comfort women," according to Yonhap News Agency. Yoon Mee-hyang, a former leader of the organization, is accused of misappropriating funds donated to the organization.

The allegations came to light in a press conference held May 7 by former comfort woman, Lee Yong-soo. Lee said the money donated to the group -- the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan -- was not being spent as intended for the victims.

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