Were Koreans really forced to work by Japan during Wartimes?

At the end of October 2018, the Korean Supreme Court ordered a Japanese firm to pay compensation to former Korean laborers during WWII. The majority of the media reported that the former Korean workers were forced laborers. However, they applied to the jobs in the Japanese firm. Thus, they were not forced to work at the firm.  Another misleading assertion in many media is that Japan had neither paid compensations nor individual wages to these Koreans. As Japan and South Korea closed the treaty normalizing diplomatic ties in 1965, Japan was intending to compensate individual Koreans including unpaid wages. The Korean government in those times wanted to receive comprehensive compensation from Japan and took over the responsibility for distributing it to its citizens. The Korean peninsula was already divided since the Korean War in 1950, and South Korea therefore represented North Korea in the treaty. The indemnification paid by Japan thus included the North Korean share.

The South Korean government in those times invested most of the compensation in industrializing the country which was later called the Miracle on the Han River. The success of South Korea’s industrialization is of course based on South Korean efforts and hard work, but the compensation and technological help by Japan were also essential. The Korean War started in 1950 and lasted three years till the armistice agreement was closed. The Korean War had devastated the Korean peninsula. The South Korean president at the time aimed to build an industrial nation prior to individual richness.

Therefore, the Korean laborers should ask their government, not Japanese firms or the Japanese government. The South Korean government was in charge of distributing the compensation.

Another thing which has been mistakenly spread is that Japan colonized Korea brutally unlike Taiwan. Taiwan was under Japan’s rule after the Sino-Japanese War in 1894 – 1895 to the end of WWII in 1945. The Chinese government (Qing Dynasty) ceded Taiwan to Japan. It was said that Japan wanted to show a successful rule to the western powers. So, Japan spent much more funds per capita for Taiwan than for the Japan’s mainland. Many media have wrongly promulgated that Korea was brutally colonized in comparison to Taiwan.

The Korean peninsula was annexed by Japan by means of the treaty between Japan and Korea in 1910.   Japan’s rule over the Korean peninsula lasted until the end of WWII in 1945. A Korean minister and one-time prime minister during this time, Ye Wanyong (1858 – 1926), was said to be a supporter of westernizing and therefore opened Korea to foreign trade. He might have hardly ever wished an independent Korea, but the Korean King and his family fought against each other to obtain the whole power and consequently involved China, Russia and Japan. As a result, Korea almost lost its independency. Ye Wanyong’s feelings to conclude the annexation treaty might have been very uneasy, but the treaty might have been considered a preparatory act to become a strong westernized independent nation in the future. In Japan, there were also diversified opinions and one concurrent opinion, namely, to annex Korea until its independency.

Ye Wanyong and other ministers are still considered traitors in South Korea as are pro-Japan Koreans. We should not think and apply ‘if’ to history, but what other choices Ye Wanyong would have had? The French cartoonist Georges Ferdinand Bigot (1860-1927) aptly illustrated the situation in Korea: China, Japan and Russia were fishing Korea.


Korea became a protectorate of Japan in 1905 and was annexed in 1910. Japan spent even more funds in Korea than in Taiwan to build infrastructure, facilities and education systems. Elementary schools were built all over Korea. Korea had had two social classes, the lower one had not possessed any rights to learn writing and reading. Since Korea had been a tributary of China, the ruling Korean class had used Chinese as the written language while still speaking Korean. Hangul (the Korean alphabet) was created by king Sejong the Great of the Korean dynasty in the 15th century; however, the ruling Korean class despised Hangul and used Chinese for writing. The Japanese government introduced Hangul to the lower ranks of society during the annexation time. The Koreans were registered as Japanese, so were the Taiwanese. A Korean, for instance, was elected a member of the Japanese Diet in 1932. During WWII, Taiwanese and Korean officers fought against the allied forces. Japan including Taiwan and Korea fought the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek, not the communist China of Mao. After WWII, the Kuomintang and the communists fought each other, and Chiang Kai-shek exiled to Taiwan in 1949. Therefore, that South Korea fought with the Chinese communists as a member of the allied forces is doubly mistaken.

Japan conscripted Taiwanese and Koreans starting from September 1944. The conscripted Korean soldiers were only trained between January and July 1945; thus, many of them were never deployed to the theaters of war. Koreans and Taiwanese could become soldiers and officers in the Imperial Japanese Army through volunteer programs (for Taiwanese from 1942, for Koreans from 1938). The selection process was very demanding (e.g., 303,394 applicants turned out only 6,000 selected in Korea).

Japan introduced the National Mobilization Law in 1938, and civilians were ordered to work for the war industry in homeland Japan. For Koreans the law was indeed applied from September 1944 to March 1945 because the ships crossing between the Korean peninsula and Japan met difficulties. Before the law was applied to Koreans, they were asked to work in Japan. They got wages and could quit working and find other jobs in Japan. Without knowledge of the circumstances and the historical background, it is incorrect to argue that the Koreans were forced laborers during WWII. Of course, in the light of today’s law standards, annexation and/or colonialization is wrong no matter what positive things Japan did for Korea. Japan wanted to pay compensation to the Korean workers themselves during the proceedings leading to the treaty in 1965, but the Korean government rejected this demand and decided otherwise. The Korean government has the responsibility to explain the real facts to its folks instead of unjustly accuse Japan.

Related Posts: