A South Korean film set during the Japanese colonial period about forced laborers working in a coal mine has been a smash hit, and a statue dedicated to forced laborers is set to be put up in Seoul. However, what we find most worrying in the current climate is the content of South Korean President Moon Jae-in's Aug. 15 speech commemorating his country's liberation from Japanese rule.
Specifically, Moon asserted that the forced laborer issue is just as major a historical problem between his country and Japan as "comfort women." He also called on Japan's leaders to "show courage" in solving these problems.
Unpaid wages for forced laborers was discussed during negotiations to normalize Japan-South Korea diplomatic relations, and was officially resolved by the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problem Concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea. In its particulars, forced labor is thus different from comfort women, which emerged as a diplomatic problem in the 1990s.
In 2005, during the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea examined the scope of the 1965 settlement, and confirmed that the forced laborer problem had indeed been resolved. What's more, Moon was chief presidential secretary in charge of the issue, and worked on the review.
When in 2012 the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that the 1965 settlement did not cover forced laborers, the government nevertheless declared that its position -- that the issue had been resolved -- was unchanged. However, when the Supreme Court sent the case back to the high court, the high court reversed its previous decision and found in favor of the plaintiff, and ordered a Japanese company to pay compensation.
The suit has once more been appealed to the Supreme Court. Should the justices confirm the high court decision, it would open up many Japanese companies to litigation, and would likely seriously impact Japan-South Korean relations.
South Korea was ruled by a military dictatorship when the 1965 settlement was signed, and we can understand the dissatisfaction of former forced laborers who feel their concerns were not reflected in the agreement.
Nevertheless, dealing with the postwar period has been an imperfect process. Compromising on complex stakes for the sake of coming to an arrangement that best responds to the international situation is inevitable. It is quite a stretch to expect a complete review of bilateral agreements simply because times have changed.
Japan and South Korea are close neighbors, and they need each other on a variety of core issues such as security and economic policy. Both sides must respect the bilateral ties built up so far, and continue to boost cooperation.
Starting with comfort women, historical issues can easily enflame the emotions of both the Japanese and South Korean people. Their national leaders must be aware that they are called on to always respond in a cool and careful manner.