National / Politics

Tokyo set 30-day deadline for Seoul over talks on forced labor rulings, South Korean media reports

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Tokyo has asked Seoul to respond within 30 days to its request for diplomatic talks over court rulings on the use of wartime forced labor by Japanese companies, according to a South Korean media report.

Japan made the request Wednesday, the South’s Yonhap news agency quoted government sources in Seoul as saying Sunday, after a court in South Korea approved the seizure of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. assets in the country in relation to a ruling over forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula from 1910-1945.

The report came just days after diplomatic sources in Tokyo indicated that the issue has also been raised by Pyongyang.

Tokyo and Seoul have been engaged in an intensifying dispute since October, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel to compensate four South Korean nationals for wartime forced labor and then handed a similar ruling to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. the following month.

Japan has refused to comply with the rulings based on its position that the matter of compensation for wartime labor was resolved under a 1965 agreement normalizing relations with South Korea.

Last week, Tokyo formally requested that Seoul launch consultations, to which South Korea said it would review the request carefully.

With Japan said to have insisted on the fixed schedule, the South Korean government has apparently said it “will not be tied down by the 30-day window” to make any decision, according to the Yonhap report that quotes unidentified sources.

Japan’s call for the talks is based on Article III of the 1965 treaty between Seoul and Tokyo. The agreement stipulates that any dispute related to the treaty must be settled by the two sides primarily through diplomatic channels. Tokyo has argued that all issues over reparation related to its rule of what is now known as South Korea were settled via the pact.

However, the treaty does not specify any deadline within which to arrange diplomatic talks.

Under the pact, if the two countries are unable to reach a resolution through diplomatic talks, they must form an arbitration committee together with a third party to settle disputes.

In that event, Tokyo and Seoul must appoint representatives “within a period of thirty days from the date of receipt by the Government of either Contracting Party from the Government of the other of a note requesting arbitration of the dispute,” according to the treaty.

It was unclear if the reported request by Japan was referring to the formation of such an arbitration committee.

The third party arbitrator must be agreed upon by Japan and South Korea “within a further period of thirty days” or appointed by the government of a third, agreed-upon country within that period. The third party arbitrator cannot be a national of either side.

The reports came the day after diplomatic sources in Tokyo revealed that North Korea had threatened to raise the issue of wartime forced labor in future bilateral talks if Tokyo continues to pursue the issue of Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, according to a report by Kyodo News that cited unidentified diplomatic sources.

In recent weeks, Pyongyang has repeatedly criticized Japan’s stance over the issue in state-run media.

According to the sources, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned that if Tokyo continues to focus on the abductions, he would bring up the issue of the “more than 8.4 million Koreans who were forced to work” under Japanese colonial rule, the sources said.

While Tokyo normalized bilateral ties with Seoul under their 1965 agreement, Japan does not have any diplomatic relationship with nuclear-armed North Korea.

Abe said last week that his government is “using various channels” to communicate with Pyongyang, including over a potential summit with leader Kim Jong Un.

For his part, Kim, too, appears interested in talks with Abe, telling South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April last year that he is ready to hold a dialogue with Japan at “any time.”

However, Abe has said time after time that Japan will hold back any economic incentives until all of its concerns — the nuclear, missile and abduction issues — are resolved.

Experts say that comments by the North, which has cultivated closer ties with the South over the last year, reveal important elements regarding its posture toward relations with Tokyo.

“First, Pyongyang feels that it has considerable leverage right now with Japan considering its warmer relations with South Korea — which is in the midst of its own nasty row with Japan over history and other issues again — and also its ties with both China and the U.S.,” said J. Berkshire Miller, a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo.

“Frankly put, there is no urgency for North Korea to resolve matters with Japan on the abductions matter and they are playing their hand in a different way.”

Pyongyang is also using the timing to hammer away at increasingly brittle trilateral ties between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.

“The North is using the approach of critiquing Tokyo — as it has done for decades — to further weaken and exploit cracks in a weakening trilateral front between the U.S., Japan and South Korea — which are supposed to be on the same page regarding the denuclearization of North Korea,” Miller said.

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