Victims of Japan's wartime forced labor denounce Seoul's compensation deal

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Two elderly World War II forced labor victims took to the streets of Seoul in wheelchairs to protest the country’s compensation deal with Japan.

On Monday, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin announced that the government’s Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan will compensate the 15 victims or their family members using an existing domestic fund rather than seeking reparations from Japan.

The decision comes amid tense political relations between Japan and South Korea, with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol noting the proposal to be in the common interest of both countries.

The compensation plan, which was initially released by Seoul’s Foreign Ministry earlier this year, prompted protests from victims and their legal representatives who demanded the original 2018 landmark decision be maintained.

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In 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese corporations, Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, to pay each victim between 100-150 million won (approximately $78,000-$116,000) for their labor during Japanese colonial rule over 70 years ago, when young Korean girls were drafted and forced to work in Japanese munitions factories.

However, Japan did not agree with the court decision, and both companies have refused to comply with the orders.

No compensation from Japan nor the Japanese companies has been paid to the victims. Only three of the 15 victims are alive today, and are all in their 90s.

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Following South Korea’s announcement of the compensation deal, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi approved and welcomed the decision to restore a diplomatic relationship.

We welcome the measures announced by the South Korean government today as a way to restore a healthy relationship between Japan and South Korea, which has been in a very difficult situation since South Korea’s Supreme Court ruling in 2018. The measures announced by the South Korean government are not on the premise that Japanese companies will contribute to the foundation (in South Korea). The Japanese government doesn’t have any particular stance on voluntary donations by individuals or private companies both in Japan and abroad.

In a statement, U.S. President Joe Biden called the announcements “a groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies” and said Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida were taking a “critical step to forge a future for the Korean and Japanese people that is safer, more secure, and more prosperous.”

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Two forced labor victims, Yang Geum-deok and Kim Sung-joo, both now aged 95, traveled to a demonstration to protest Yoon’s compensation deal.

Both Yang and Kim were forced to work at a Mitsubishi Heavy aircraft factory in Nagoya, Japan, when they were teens.

According to government data, there are about 1,815 living victims of forced labor in South Korea.

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At the parliament, hundreds of supporters, including opposition lawmakers, reportedly waved red cards and banners. Protesters called Yoon’s diplomacy “humiliating” and demanded the deal be withdrawn.

Kim, who previously suffered a stroke, attended the demonstration in her wheelchair.

“We can forgive, if Japan tells us one word, ‘we are sorry and we did wrong,’” Kim said. “But there's no such word. The more I think about that, the more I cry.

Yang, who demanded that Japan should pay compensation and apologize, waved a card that read: “Mitsubishi must apologize and compensate!”

It is so unfair. I don't know where Yoon Suk Yeol is from. Is he truly a South Korean? I am 95 years old and I don't know if I die today or tomorrow. But never in my life have I felt so distressed. Even if I die of hunger, I would not accept that dirty money.