National / Politics

Japan and South Korea leaders unlikely to hold talks as ties sour over wartime labor ruling

Kyodo

The leaders of Japan and South Korea are not expected to hold talks on the sidelines of upcoming regional conferences that both plan to attend, in the latest sign of souring bilateral ties, sources have said.

Relations between the two neighbors appear to be rapidly deteriorating following a South Korean top court ruling last week ordering a Japanese company to pay compensation for wartime labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The sources said Tuesday that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are both expected to attend a meeting involving partners of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore as well as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Papua New Guinea later this month.

However, a Japanese Foreign Ministry source said any summit between Abe and Moon would be “meaningless when the South Korean government has not been clear how it will respond to the (top court) ruling.”

On Oct. 30, South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to compensate four South Koreans for wartime labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that it is “very concerned” over Japanese leaders’ negative reaction to last week’s ruling.

In a statement, it accused Japan’s leadership of being “not concerned about the root of the problem” and of “continuing to speak out (in ways that) stimulate our national feelings.”

Tokyo maintains the issue of compensation related to the period was settled under an agreement attached to a 1965 treaty that established diplomatic ties between Japan and South Korea.

Abe called the ruling “unbelievable” and indicated Tokyo could take the case to the International Court of Justice.

If the leaders do have a brief exchange at the meetings, Abe is likely to reiterate Japan’s position that it will not accept the ruling, the sources said.

On Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga emphasized in a news conference that the 1965 pact binds not only the former and current South Korean administrations but the country’s judicial community as well.

The ruling by the top Seoul court “has created a situation where South Korea has breached international law,” the top government spokesman said.

Suga’s comment came after a high-ranking South Korean government official reportedly blasted Japan’s reaction after the ruling, calling Tokyo’s moves as “politically incorrect and regrettable.”

Fourteen similar suits have been filed against Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., Nachi-Fujikoshi Corp. and Hitachi Zosen Corp.

The ruling has made it increasingly difficult for the countries to continue arranging a visit by Moon to Japan by the end of the year, which marks the 20th anniversary of a 1998 joint declaration for developing a “future-oriented relationship,” the sources said.

“We are not in a situation to hold working-level talks (for the visit),” one of the sources said.

Bilateral ties have often been rocked by issues related to territory and history, including Korean “comfort women,” who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels.

Japan has been seeking to improve ties with South Korea to address North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as well as its past abductions of Japanese nationals.