East Asian Heritage Feud: Unpacking the South Korea-Japan rift over UNESCO gems

Hashima Island is also known as Battleship Island, due to its shape resembling the Japanese battleships (Tosa). Photo courtesy of Conde Nast Traveler

Weathered-down concrete structures and lush greenery trails, gradually reclaimed by the sea. Waves, battling against the sound of silence. These images create an apocalyptic sight, a scenery you would stumble on in The Last of Us, not in reality. Yet, we might find ourselves lucky and venture upon it on Japan’s Hashima Island. 

Situated in Nagasaki prefecture, the island stands as a testament to Japan’s successful modernization during the Meiji period. The site once housed a  densely populated thriving Japanese community and designed concrete structures even before Tokyo.

However, amidst the island’s remarkable history, the not-so-wonderful aspects tend to be overlooked. Hashima Island was also where Korean and Chinese labourers toiled under exploitative conditions, often overworked, and inadequately compensated for their gruelling efforts in the island’s coal mines. 

The grisly past came to light once again when the Island, along with 22 other industrial sites, was added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) heritage site list in 2015, disregarding the “rumours” of forced labour, and subsequently widening the gap between South Korea and Japan.

Finding common ground

The implementation process encountered significant challenges, as both countries failed to see eye-to-eye. Eventually, during the re-examination of new candidates for cultural heritage sites at UNESCO’s 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in 2015, the Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding, and Coal Mining were accepted with the condition that Japan would acknowledge the complete history of these sites, encompassing the narrative of forced labour. 

At this session, Japan’s ambassador to UNESCO Kuni Sato acknowledged that a considerable number of Koreans and others were compelled to work in harsh conditions during the 1940s on some of these sites.

Kuni Sato at the 39th UNESCO session in 2015. Photo courtesy of APJJF

However, the day following the inclusion of these sites, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida contended that being “forced to work” did not equate to “forced labour,” casting a concerning shadow over the future of the designated sites and Japan-South Korea relations.

Despite Japan’s promise to incorporate the complete historical narrative into its interpretation strategy, reports from UNESCO and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in the following years contradicted this claim. 

In 2021, ICOMOS conducted an investigation of the Industrial Heritage Information Centre (IHIC). This led to the observation that Japan still needed to improve the centre by incorporating Korea’s perspective, which it committed to five years earlier. 

Japan responded by creating a series of video interviews featuring previous residents of Hashima Island to demonstrate that both Koreans and Japanese endured similar hardships on the island, asserting that there was no discrimination against Koreans, as everyone was regarded as part of the Hashima’s “big family.”

The origin of the dispute

The contrasting narratives maintained by the two countries stem from Japan’s refusal to integrate the South Korean perspective due to its understanding of the annexation process of South Korea into the Japanese empire in 1910. 

The last monarch of Korea, Sojung, placed his seal on the annexation treaty, which had already been signed by the Korean prime minister, Yi Wanyong, effectively “giving Korea to Japan.” Japan recognizes this process as legitimate due to the signed treaty, while Korea views it as a forced imposition.

The annexation treaty, signed in 1910.

As Korea became a part of the great Japanese Empire, Koreans were considered the emperor’s subjects, and consequently, 800,000 were mobilized during the Second World War. While over a third were drafted into the military, many were sent to various industrial sites in Japan, where they endured harsh conditions and lost their lives. 

Today, many of these industrial sites, like Miike Mine and Hashima Island, stand proudly as Japan’s UNESCO heritage sites, showcasing Japan’s progress during the Meiji restoration period. 

While Korea has persistently sought compensation along with an apology from Japan, the latter contends that the labour mobilization was not forced but rather applied equally to all the emperor’s subjects, as Korea had legally become a part of Japan in 1910.

South Korea’s ping-ponging approach

Past South Korean presidents have approached the resolution of such disputes differently. Despite the treaty signed between the two countries in 1965, where Japan paid South Korea 300 million US dollars in reparations, Korea failed to directly compensate victims. Instead, the government utilized the funds to bolster its economy and distributed it among major Korean companies. 

In 2005, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun acknowledged for the first time that compensation for forced labour was included in the payment and determined its fair distribution among individual victims. Subsequent presidents, Lee Myung-Bak and Park Geun-hye upheld this position until Moon Jae-in’s government significantly altered it. 

Until this change, it was believed that all claims had been settled through the 1965 contract until the South Korean Supreme Court filed a lawsuit against 16 Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Japanese Steel, Nippon Steel and Sumitomo in 2018, demanding compensation for forced labour. 

The Supreme Court asserted that the occupation of Korea was illegal from the onset and assumed that the 1965 treaty referred to an illegal occupation. It also contended that the agreement was not intended to settle war reparations but rather to normalize and settle credits between the two countries. Consequently, compensation should be awarded not only for unpaid work but also for the psychological consequences suffered by victims of forced labour. 

Although 15 victims won such cases in 2018, none have received compensation. However, with the change in the South Korean government in 2022, with Yoon Suk-yeol assuming the presidency, there has also been a shift in approach to relations with Japan.

On March 6, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially announced a resolution to the long-standing forced labour issue. The current South Korean government has proposed a solution that pledges repayment to the surviving victims and their families through a “third party.” 

Although President Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida viewed this as a significant step towards mending relations, the newly accepted agreement faced immense criticism from both the affected families and the opposition party.

Korean civic group in Gwangju, opposing the government’s ‘third party repayment’ plan. Photo courtesy of NocutNews Korea

Initially sanctioned by the South Korean Supreme Court in 2018, the remaining 15 victims (three survivors) were to receive compensation from Japanese defendants. However, the third-party reimbursement would now come from Korean companies instead. These included KT&G, Korea Electric Power Corp. and other companies that had benefitted from the 1965 treaty. 

President Yoon thus granted Japan “immunity” through the third-party plan, disregarding the desires of the victims of forced labour, who had triumphed in the Supreme Court. 

Despite protests from the victims and their families, Hankyoreh reported that 10 victims eventually accepted the third-party compensation, while five resisted, refusing to accept sums ranging from 200 million to 290 million South Korean won per person.

Hunch Munchies and Hope-O-Meters through the North Pacific

Many speculate that this revised approach might be influenced by the United States. Experts also believe that South Korea may have felt pressure from the US, which sees both Japan and South Korea as crucial allies. This is especially important given the increasing provocations from North Korea and the growing competition with China.

The major opposition, the Democratic Party, criticized the plan of third-party repayment as “submissive diplomacy.” On the other hand, South Korea’s Foreign Minister, Park Jin, emphasized that South Korea-Japan relations should no longer be marginalized, advocating for an end to the cycle of prioritizing national interests. He expressed a desire for a genuine response from Japan, one that includes remorse and an apology. 

President Yoon also expressed his intention to obtain “good-faith measures” from the Japanese government in return. However, details on how these measures will be achieved are yet to be shared by Yoon’s administration. 

Can relics of the past heal future ties?

Japanese researcher Takeuchi Yasuto once said that “forced mobilization is not a matter of numbers. It is a matter of your own life. It is a problem that has taken away the future of man (who was sacrificed by forced mobilization). The Japanese government claims that this is a problem that has already been solved, but is it not the right solution to uncover the truth, restore the dignity of the victims and inherit history?” 

Japan’s UNESCO Heritage sites hence stand as tangible relics of the past. But more than that, they also serve as a metaphor for the intricate process of historical understanding and healing. The journey towards mutual acknowledgement and reconciliation remains ongoing, illustrating just how important it is to foster understanding and empathy amid the complexities of shared history. Only through sincere efforts to recognize the past in its entirety can we hope to pave the way for a more harmonious future between nations.



Hana Kuznar

My name is Hana and I come from a small capital city Ljubljana, Slovenia. Recently, I completed my first semester at Yonsei GSIS, pursuing a Master’s degree in Korean Studies with a specialization in politics and economy. Following the completion of my Bachelor’s degree in Korean and Japanese Studies, I arrived in Korea in 2022 as a recipient of the Global Korean Scholarship. Drawing from my involvement in diverse cultural exchange initiatives and my experience working at a radio station, I am interested in international relations and the intricate problem-solving mechanisms adopted by distinct nations. Presently, my focus lies in delving deeper into the dynamics of Korean-Japanese relations and inter-Korean relations.

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