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Japan and South Korea address a dispute over their bitter past

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

For years, two key U.S. allies in Asia have been embroiled in bitter disagreements over wartime history and just as the U.S. needs their regional help. Today, South Korea has proposed a deal to resolve a dispute with Japan, and the White House has praised the move. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us now from Seoul. Anthony, so this dispute - what's it about, and what's the plan to resolve it?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, the South Korean government has estimated that some 1.2 million Koreans were coerced or tricked into working for Japan during the war in Japan, China and elsewhere. And these people worked in mines and factories, and thousands of them died under brutal conditions. Then, in 2018, South Korea's Supreme Court ruled that two big Japanese companies that used forced labor had to compensate the victims. But the companies refused to pay because they argued the issue was settled when Seoul and Tokyo normalized diplomatic relations in 1965.

So this dispute recently escalated into a trade war, which affected intelligence sharing, which, in turn, affected these countries' alliances with the U.S. So the new plan is that instead of the Japanese companies compensating the forced laborers, South Korea will do it through a public foundation funded through donations. And instead of Japan issuing a new apology for its wartime actions, it'll affirm statements made before in which Japan basically said, we feel remorse for what we did. We apologize. Now let's all move on.

MARTÍNEZ: How are they able to come together on this?

KUHN: Well, several factors facilitated this deal. You have conservative, pro-U.S. leaders in both capitals - Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Japan and President Yoon Suk-yeol in South Korea. You also have North Korea launching a record number of missiles last year and China flexing its military muscles near Taiwan last year. South Korea is hoping this new proposal is going to help end the trade spat with Japan. And the two countries' leaders will resume visits, and they'll haul relations out of the deep freeze. Let's hear what South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said about the deal today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARK JIN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: So he says, "we hope that this solution will be a window of opportunity for a new history for the two countries, going beyond antagonism and conflict and moving forward toward the future. I think this is our last chance."

So what he seemed to be implying by last chance was that the elderly victims of forced labor are fading from the scene, and such a deal might not be possible under different administrations.

MARTÍNEZ: The victims of the forced labor - I'm sure they have thoughts.

KUHN: Yeah. That's the crucial issue. The victims themselves are not buying this deal at all. They want Japan to apologize. They want the Japanese companies to compensate them, not a South Korean foundation. And the victims' lawyers have said that they intend to challenge this deal in court. And the South Korean Supreme Court ruling ordering the Japanese companies to pay still stands, so this issue is far from settled.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned earlier how the U.S. needs South Korea and Japan right now. What's the U.S. reaction been?

KUHN: Well, President Biden hailed this deal in a statement, saying that it marks a groundbreaking chapter for the two key U.S. allies. And from the U.S. perspective, it's just inconceivable that this decades-old history is distracting its allies at a time when they face growing security threats in the region, particularly from North Korea and China. And many South Koreans and Japanese agree with this. But the victims feel that it's inconceivable that any country could act as if it had no historical memory or that any countries could try to move forward without facing up to past injustices.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Seoul. Anthony, thanks.

KUHN: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.