South Korea said Thursday it was considering compensating victims over Japan's forced wartime labour without the direct participation of Japanese companies, as Seoul seeks closer ties with Tokyo to counter North Korean aggression.
South Korea and Japan are both key regional security allies of the US, but bilateral ties have long been strained over Tokyo's brutal 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.
Around 780,000 Koreans were conscripted into forced labour by Japan during the 35-year occupation, according to data from Seoul, not including women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops.
At a public hearing Thursday, Seo Min-jong, a senior official of the Foreign Affairs ministry, said the idea would be that victims could "receive compensation through a third party".
Local reports have said the fund in discussion would use donations from South Korean companies – which benefitted from a reparations package from Japan – without the participation of Japanese companies.
But the idea has drawn strong protest from victims groups, who want financial compensation and an apology directly from the Japanese companies involved.
They had won cases on this very issue in 2018, when Seoul's Supreme Court ordered for some Japanese companies to pay compensation over forced wartime labour.
"Please tell us why the government is rushing this proposal that is opposed by the victims," said Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer representing the victims.
The public hearing comes as the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol government moves to boost Seoul-Tokyo ties, citing a growing common security threat from North Korea.
His administration is seeking to find a way out of the years-long historical dispute with Korea's former coloniser.
Tokyo insists a 1965 treaty, which saw the two countries restore diplomatic ties with a reparation package of about US$800 million (about RM3.5 billion) in grants and cheap loans, settled all claims between the two over the 35-year colonial rule period.