National / Politics

Japan turns up heat but fails to convince South Korea to accept arbitration over wartime labor

Kyodo, Staff Report

Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Thursday turned up the heat on South Korea in a dispute over compensation for wartime labor, but failed to convince Seoul to accept Tokyo’s request for arbitration.

In a meeting in Paris, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha only repeated Seoul’s intention to review the request, according to a Japanese Foreign Ministry official.

Kono told reporters later that South Korean President Moon Jae-in needs to come up with measures necessary to resolve the spat in a responsible manner by the time a Group of 20 summit takes place in Osaka in late June as Seoul “cannot let the situation remain in violation of international law.”

Relations between the two countries have shown no signs of improving following a series of court rulings in South Korea that ordered Japanese companies to compensate for forced labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

In a tense exchange at the outset of their meeting, Kono criticized a South Korean Foreign Ministry official for telling reporters there would be “no problem” if Japanese companies just complied with court orders to pay compensation.

“This remark shows a lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation. I would like you to see that things like this are complicating our countries’ relations,” Kono told Kang.

Their first face-to-face meeting since February followed Tokyo’s request that an arbitration panel involving a third country be established to resolve the dispute.

Tokyo maintains that the issue of wartime compensation was resolved by a 1965 treaty that established diplomatic ties between the two countries, under which Japan provided South Korea with a total of $800 million as “economic cooperation” that consisted of a $300 million grant in economic aid, $200 million in loans and $300 million in loans for private trust. Seoul’s annual budget was $350 million at the time.

Kang said she hopes that with the beginning of the Reiwa Era in Japan, the two countries can resolve “difficult issues” and take relations in a more positive direction.

She said the two countries should work together “to heal the pains and scars of the victims.”

South Korea has yet to say whether it will agree with the request for arbitration, which was made in line with the dispute-settlement procedures agreed to under the treaty.

If Seoul rejects the request, Kono has said that Tokyo will take the issue to the International Court of Justice.

The two met on the sidelines of a meeting of the OECD.

In late October, South Korea’s top court ordered Nippon Steel Corp. to pay compensation to four South Koreans for forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule. The company was previously called Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp.

Other Japanese companies have since been hit with similar rulings and had their assets seized.

Due to the frosty ties, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may not hold bilateral talks with Moon on the periphery of the G20 summit in Osaka, government sources have said.

During Thursday’s talks with Kono, Kang refused to lift a ban on seafood from Fukushima and seven other Japanese prefectures, citing the need to honor the World Trade Organization’s ruling last month in favor of the restrictions imposed in the wake of the 2011 nuclear disaster.

Kono and Kang also discussed recent developments concerning North Korea, including Pyongyang’s testing of short-range ballistic missiles earlier this month, and agreed to continue closely coordinating on the matter.