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Foreign Minister Taro Kono may meet with South Korean counterpart at Davos amid frosty ties

Kyodo, Staff Report

Foreign Minister Taro Kono may meet his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, next week on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss bilateral ties that have worsened over wartime labor issues, diplomatic sources said Thursday.

A meeting between Kono and Kang would be the first since frictions arose following a South Korean court ruling in late October, which ordered a Japanese firm to pay compensation for wartime forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945.

The alleged lock-on of a fire-control radar system operated by the South Korean Navy onto an Air Self-Defense Force patrol plane has also exacerbated the tensions between Tokyo and Seoul.

Japan is currently awaiting a response to its request to South Korea on Jan. 9 to start bilateral consultations aimed at resolving the dispute over the compensation ruling.

A district court in South Korea has approved a request by lawyers representing South Korean plaintiffs in the lawsuit to seize assets held by Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. Subject to the seizure are Nippon Steel’s shares in a joint venture with South Korean steel maker Posco.

The Japanese firm has already let a deadline set by the lawyers seeking to start compensation talks pass.

Tokyo has taken issue with a recent string of events related to wartime labor as it maintains that the issue of compensation was settled “completely and finally” under a 1965 agreement signed with a treaty that established diplomatic ties.

If the meeting takes place at Davos, Kono is expected to tell Kang that Japan will take resolute action should the seizure of Nippon Steel’s assets proceed, according to the sources.

“(South Korean) President Moon Jae-in is thinking lightly of Japan and this attitude is to be blamed” for the dispute, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.

If the dispute is not solved through diplomatic channels, Tokyo may pursue the launch of an arbitration panel that involves a third country based on the 1965 agreement.

Arrangements for a meeting are being made since Kono and Kang, who spoke by phone on Jan. 4, have agreed to continue talks on various occasions, including at the economic forum set to run from Tuesday at the Swiss resort.

According to the sources, Kono and Kang may also discuss the topic of wartime “comfort women” — a euphemism used to refer to women who provided sex, including those who did so against their will, for Japanese troops before and during World War II.

South Korea decided last year to dissolve a Japanese-funded foundation set up under a 2015 bilateral agreement intended to finally and irreversibly settle the comfort women issue.

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