Relations between Japan and South Korea have been rocky ever since the end of the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea in 1945. Image: iStock

South Korea and Japan have had strained relationship in recent decades, due to Japan’s brutal crimes against Koreans during the colonial era. Among many other atrocities, Koreans are particularly incensed by the sex-slave and forced-labor issues of the 1940s. While civic groups hold “Wednesday demonstrations” outside the Japanese Embassy every week to demand that Japan sincerely offer apologies for the “comfort women” issue, fewer people have focused on the forced-labor issue.

During World War II, Japanese companies sold weapons for the Japanese imperialist armies. Some of them forcibly mobilized men from Korea and China for forced labor in the mass production of weapons.

On Hashima Island off Japan, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries engaged in deep-sea mining. There, Koreans were forced to mine coal under harsh conditions: the mine was too narrow to walk through; its humidity was 95% on average and temperature was over 30 degrees Celsius. Above all, the mine was vulnerable to explosions, so some men worked at the cost of their lives. While Japan exploited Korean workers, it didn’t pay them, just providing squalid rooms for them.

In 2012, the South Korean government estimated that more than 500 Korean workers were subjected to forced labor on Hashima in 1944 alone. A civic group in Japan has said that roughly 122 Koreans lost their lives there, after finding the official documents that recorded the identifications of the dead.

The Japanese government, however, is hiding its shameful history. It has registered Hashima Island on the UNESCO World Heritage List, introducing it as a tourism spot. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which belatedly noticed the forced-labor issue, has recommended that Japan educate visitors to Hashima on its tragic history. However, Japan doesn’t mention forced labor, sticking to an “I don’t care” attitude.

Japan asserts that the forced-labor issue has been long resolved, citing compensation paid when Seoul and Tokyo established diplomatic relations in 1965. At that time, Tokyo offered US$800 million in grants and soft loans, which Seoul used as seed money for its economic takeoff, rather than paying it to victims.

But Japan hasn’t ever offered an apology to victims. For Koreans, all the Japanese government has done is try to silence victims by giving money to its Korean counterpart. Unlike its attitude toward Korea, Japan has atoned for its wartime atrocities in China, and has also apologized for its treatment of American prisoners of war. Even after these apologies, however, Mitsubishi just said that “the forced-labor issue in Korea is different from that of China,” rather than offering an apology to Korean victims.

In Korea, victims of forced labor have sued Japanese companies that were involved in forced labor. Victims have sought compensation from Japanese companies, but what they genuinely want is a sincere apology from the Japanese government, not just money.

Many victims have already died. Japan is wrong to hide its crimes, claiming that it has reconciled the forced-labor issue.

Japan has compensated the South Korean government for its past misdeeds, but it hasn’t made any apology to individual victims. Moreover, it tries to prettify its wartime crimes, including forced labor. That’s why both victims and the Korean government officials argue that Japan has yet to repent sincerely for its human-rights abuses.

Yukio Hatoyama, a former prime minister of Japan, recently called for the country’s current leader, Shinzo Abe, to atone for his nation’s past wrongdoings. The agreements in 1965 and 2015, as the former PM has said, don’t mean that victims cannot individually seek compensation, including apologies for the use of forced labor.

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