SEOUL - Thousands of people have taken to the streets in the past week to protest against South Korea’s plan to end a wartime forced labour dispute with Japan, many voicing anger at what they deem a “foolish” and “humiliating” move.
The administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol announced on Monday it would compensate victims of forced labour with donations from a Seoul-based foundation.
But this goes against a 2018 Supreme Court ruling for Japanese companies to directly pay damages to 15 people forced to work in their factories during the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial period until the end of World War II.
The government’s move is aimed at improving ties with Japan, which sank to historic lows after the ruling triggered diplomatic and trade rows.
Japan has since invited Mr Yoon to visit Tokyo on March 16 and 17 for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in what would be the first state visit by a South Korean president in 12 years.
Protesters, however, say the Yoon administration is being too pro-Japanese.
Thousands of them turned up in front of the Seoul City Hall on Saturday, holding signs to demand the withdrawal of the forced labour deal and a “trial of the Yoon government’s humiliating diplomacy”.
The turnout exceeded organisers’ expected 6,000, and the gathering morphed into a full-scale anti-government rally, with opposition politicians lambasting the Yoon administration on stage and attendees holding signs that called for Mr Yoon’s resignation.
Protesters holding blue balloons, indicating their support for the country’s main opposition Democratic Party, joined others wearing red headbands signalling that they are trade union members.
Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung, who lost the 2022 presidential race to Mr Yoon by a tiny 0.74 per cent margin, said the President “seems to be deaf” to the voices of the people.
“The President said the compensation plan respects the victims, but I heard with my own ears the grandma victims saying they don’t need that kind of money,” said Mr Lee, whose stage appearance at the Saturday rally drew thunderous applause.
“The President cut open the wounds of the victims and mercilessly trampled on the people’s pride.”
Added Ms Lee Jeong-mi, leader of the minor opposition Justice Party: “The Yoon government betrayed history and gave the victims of forced labour indelible humiliation.”
Government data shows there are currently 1,815 survivors of forced labour in South Korea.
Two of them, Madam Yang Geum-deok and Madam Kim Sung-joo, both in their 90s and seated in wheelchairs, voiced their objections to the compensation plan at a protest in front of the National Assembly on Tuesday organised by activist groups.
As teenagers, both had been forced to work for 17 months, unpaid, in a factory owned by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Nagoya, Japan.
They are among a group of victims who successfully sued the Japanese firm in 2018. Another group won a case against Nippon Steel.
But the Japanese government stopped both companies from paying damages, insisting that all compensation for issues related to history were settled under the 1965 agreement to normalise relations between Japan and South Korea.
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin announced on Monday that the victims would instead receive compensation from a foundation funded by private Korean companies that had benefited from a US$800 million reparation package from Japan in 1965.
“I will not accept the money even if I starve to death,” said Madam Yang, who deems the plan unacceptable as it did not involve the company responsible for her suffering.
Added Madam Kim, who was accompanied by her son: “We can forgive, if Japan tells us ‘we are sorry and we did wrong’. But there’s no such word. The more I think about that, the more I cry.”
A poll released on Friday showed that 59 per cent of 1,002 respondents opposed the plan as it did not require Japan’s official apology and compensation.
About 35 per cent supported the plan for the sake of national interest and better relations with Japan, while the rest were unsure.
The ruling People Power Party has proposed an alternative – to compensate the victims with funds collected from the two countries’ governments and companies, as well as public donations – ostensibly to assuage public anger.
Some of the 100 or so people who joined a weekly Wednesday protest calling for a resolution for wartime sex slaves for the Japanese army – another trigger of animosity against Japan – also voiced outrage against the compensation plan for forced labourers.
Retired teacher Im Gye-jae, 70, called it a “very, very stupid and foolish” plan, speaking in English for emphasis.
Student Park Sae-hee, 25, said everyone around her was “really angry”, even those who are not interested in historical issues.
“The statement (by Foreign Minister Park) was so long, but it was full of pro-Japanese remarks, with no promise of apology,” she told The Straits Times.
“Anyone who remembers our history of being colonised by Japan cannot help but feel angry, because we know how our ancestors fought and died. Issues from the colonial era have not been settled yet. In fact, I feel we are regressing when it comes to past problems that were not resolved properly.”
Student Lee Seung-ju, 33, travelled to Seoul from his home in Gumi city 200km south of the capital to join both the Tuesday and Wednesday protests.
He said the Yoon administration’s overtly pro-Japanese stance made it seem like “we’re going back to colonial times”.
“One of my friends, a woman, even said, ‘Are we going to be kidnapped again?’” he added.
“You don’t even have to be Korean to feel upset. When you see people dying, people being treated brutally, you’re not angry?”