Battleship Island (2017) from director Ryu Seung-wan soared to the top of the domestic box office on release, amassing nearly a million views on its premiere night alone. Starring some of Korea’s most renowned actors like Hwang Jung-min, Lee Jung-Hyun, and So Ji-sub, the film depicts the Japanese wartime abuses faced by Koreans. Despite the controversies over its questionable historical accuracy, the film has still managed to attract considerable attention. At the same time, the forced labor victims have recently come to the public’s attention through a string of court rulings.
Korea was annexed by Japan from 1910 until 1945, with Korean laborers mercilessly employed to work in Japanese industrial factories and coal mines during the later years. Victims testified that they were lured in with false promises of academic opportunities and well-paying jobs, and only when they arrived in Japan was it revealed that they would be treated as second-class subjects. They claimed to have arduously toiled at undersea coal mines, where they were exposed to gas explosions and frequent tunnel collapses, among other squalid conditions.
Publically Unveiling Personal Scars
Victims have previously filed cases against Japanese firms, but Japan’s Supreme Court has consistently ruled against the victims’ pleas, asserting that all individual compensation was already settled in the past. Over the past few years, the victims have changed their strategy and started filing the cases in Korean courts, hoping for more favorable results. Unfortunately, Korean courts have also been following the same footsteps as those of Japan. However, just a few days before this year’s National Liberation Day, the Gwangju District Court finally shifted from its previously unwavering stance and raised its voice in favor of the victims.
▲ Kim Jae-rim (center) holds up a sign announcing victory. PROVIDED BY THE JAPAN TIMES.
On August 8, the court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to pay 120 million won to Kim Young-ok, an 85-yearold victim who worked at an aircraft manufacturing plant in Nagoya, and 3.25 million won to a family member of victim Choe Jeong-rye. Later during the week, the same court ruled that the company has to pay 150 million won to Oh Cheolseok, a family member of victim Oh Kil-se, and 120 million won to elderly surviving victim Kim Jae-rim, as remuneration for the injustice the victims suffered.
Previously in 2015, Mitsubishi Materials publicly expressed remorse in an apology for the treatment of United States (U.S.) Prisoners of War (POW) during a news conference at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Last year, Mitsubishi delivered sincere apologies to the thousands of Chinese POWs who were forced into slavery during World War II (WWII), proposing to pay 15,000 dollars to each of the victims or their family members. However, the firm has hesitated to provide the same benefits to its Korean victims.
A Glimpse Into Japan’s Response
Despite constantly calling for reconciliation, Tokyo asserts that all compensation for individual and social damages incurred by the imperialistic establishment was settled by the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and Korea. The treaty was established in 1965 as an attempt to normalize diplomatic relations between the two East Asian neighbors, in which Korea received 800 million dollars to facilitate Korea and Japan’s economic cooperation. However, as Professor Choi Jong-gil (Modern History of Japan, Dong-A University) states, “It is important to note that this was a negotiation between the two nations, and not between individual victims and perpetrators.”
“Japan believes that the forceful act of recruitment was violent but legal,” Choi pointed out. While it feels contrite for enslaving a massive number of Koreans, the Japanese government insists that they cannot punish or fine those responsible, due to the laws that deemed such actions perfectly legal during that era. However, “Korea notes that the act was both inhumane and illegal according to today’s standards.”
Placing special emphasis on war ethics, Choi said, “Martial law is not an appropriate standard by which to judge actions that transpire under wartime conditions, as the law is often inhumane and unjustifiable to begin with.” As such, although the state should theoretically refrain from intervening in the private transactions between individuals and firms, in cases like these, the government should oversee the legal disputes between parties to ensure that justice is served.
Recently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conferred World Heritage status to the 23 Japanese industrial sites that employed forced labor, inciting uproar amongst Korean and Chinese citizens. Japan posits that the sites testify to the rapid modernization achieved during the Meiji Industrial Revolution, which allowed Japan to become the first non-Western nation to modernize. However, any damning evidence of labor exploitation or abysmal working conditions went unmentioned in the proposal. Now full of inhabitants, Hashima Island* is open to tourists who marvel at its contributions to the industrial revolution, blissfully unaware of the unspoken evil lurking beneath the surface.
Keys to Untie the Gordian Knot
This is not the first time a controversial site with a history of labor exploitation has entered the modern zeitgeist, but previous incidents were handled in a drastically different manner. For instance, many people were forced into labor in the Zeche Zollverein, or Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, during WWII by Nazi Germany. However, unlike Japan, Germany acknowledged their wrongdoings and compensated the victims for their suffering. They even set up a commemorative building in memorial for the forced laborers. Japan would do well to emulate Germany’s deft hand at damage control.
Mirroring Korea’s constant call for Japan’s official apology, the Vietnamese government also revealed that the South Korean soldiers forcibly recruited comfort women during the Vietnam War. Despite having the same historical scars, the Korean government’s official apology to the Vietnamese government is often criticized for failing to address the atrocities that Korean soldiers committed against Vietnamese women. However, as Choi mentioned, “Korea’s reluctance to acknowledge its wartime actions does not excuse Japan’s refusal to issue a formal apology.” The fact that both nations are busy pointing fingers at each other, while evading their responsibilities, does not solve the heart of the problem; both nations must unflaggingly make amends for the people they victimized.
The individual problems of forced labor victims are once again being scrutinized by the public. In the same way that the pain and history behind sex slaves became the shared concern of all Koreans over the past few years, these incidents remind people of the importance of reflecting on history, rectifying past wrongdoings, and offering a public solution to problems that were hitherto neglected by the public. The past should not stay in the past; instead Japan and Korea should take active measures to bring a comprehensive and permanent end to indignities that have marred their histories.
*Hashima Island, also known as Battleship Island, was purchased by the Mitsubishi Corporation for the purpose of industrial mining. Forced laborers from Korea and China were enslaved at undersea coal mines.