Japan’s ‘sincere apology’ would solve wartime labor issue, South Korean candidate says

The presidential candidate of South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party said Thursday that tensions over wartime labor compensation can be solved if Japan makes a “sincere apology,” but he did not offer a concrete plan on an issue that has aggravated bilateral relations.

During a news conference with foreign media in Seoul, Lee Jae-myung also disputed media reports that paint him as a hard-liner due to his past remarks, saying they are based on misunderstandings and that he respects Japan as a country.

“I’d like to say that I love Japanese people because I had very heartwarming experiences during my past visits to Japan,” the former governor of Gyeonggi Province said.

Lee added that, if elected, he would seek a “path that would help” both countries, because South Korea and Japan are “geographically close and in an interdependent relationship.”

In September, a South Korean district court ordered a local asset of Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to be sold so plaintiffs who have won damages from the company over forced wartime labor can be compensated. Tokyo strongly opposes the sale.

Lee said that given the separation of powers between different branches of government, it is “impossible” for the executive to tell the judiciary not to take compulsory action. But he argued that a solution can be found if opposing sides meet halfway, because victims do not want money but rather they hope to see the Japanese side acknowledge the damage caused and apologize.

Japan-South Korea relations have sunk to their lowest point in decades following South Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 that ordered Mitsubishi Heavy and another Japanese company to compensate groups of Koreans for forced labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Tokyo takes the position that all South Korean claims stemming from its 35-year rule were settled under a 1965 bilateral agreement under which it provided grants and loans to Seoul.

Lee also said Thursday that he intends to advance economic exchanges between the two countries by separating the economy from historical and territorial issues.

While he responded positively to greater cooperation with Japan on the security front, he remained cautious about the idea of a three-way “military alliance” involving the United States, South Korea and Japan.

Lee said he remains worried because it appears as if Japan has not accepted or sincerely reflected on its history.

On North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the candidate said denuclearization is the “overriding principle” given the risk the Korean people might be “annihilated.”

Lee is expected to face the main opposition People Power Party nominee, former Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl, in the presidential election in March. The winner will take over from President Moon Jae-in, whose five-year term ends in May.

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