The news that South Korea is abandoning its claims against Japan for compensation for wartime slave labor reminds us how relevant World War II still is today, even seventy-eight years after its conclusion. Korea had been part of the Japanese empire since 1910, but during World War II it was treated particularly harshly. Some 5.4 million Korean civilians were forced to work for the Japanese war effort out of a total population of 23.4 million, most of them for little or no pay. An unknown but large number of Korean women were forced into prostitution for the Japanese army, the so-called “comfort women.”

Nearly a quarter of a million Koreans were conscripted into the Japanese army, where they initially undertook mainly anti-insurgency duties in Manchukuo, but eventually they were used across the Pacific theatre, and over twenty-two thousand were killed. It has been estimated that as a result of the war and Japanese colonialism, around half a million Koreans died between the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and Japan’s final surrender in 1945.

World War II is thus still a live issue in South Korean politics. Although Japan made a statement in 1998 expressing “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for the “tremendous damage and suffering” wrought under its rule, in 2018 both Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel, companies that had used slave labor during the war, were ordered by South Korea’s supreme court to pay tens of thousands of dollars in compensation to fifteen Korean former slave-laborers or their descendants. This opened the possibility of billions having to be paid out to the 220,000 victims of slave labor who have been identified. (Japan had paid compensation in 1965, although very small amounts.)

Rather than pay again for its crimes, which it fully admits took place, Japan used its vast commercial muscle to force the South Korean government to back down. Japan offered a renewal of the 1998 apology, but nothing else. It unilaterally restricted industrial chemical exports to South Korea, against World Trade Organization rules, and stripped the country of its most-favored-nation trading status.

With a need to cooperate with Japan in the face of an increasingly hegemonic China, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol backed down and announced that the compensation would instead be covered by a South Korean foundation, rather than the Japanese firms. This has been likened to the humiliation of Samjeondo of 1636, when the Korean King Injo of Joseon was forced to paid obeisance to the ambassadors of the Chinese Qing dynasty. Japan has won financial victory, but hardly a moral one.

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