Japan on Wednesday took the next step in pushing South Korea to begin an arbitration process for a dispute over wartime labor that has seen ties between the neighboring countries sink to their lowest point in years.
A day after South Korea failed to meet a deadline to name a member to an arbitration panel along with Japan and a third country, Tokyo asked Seoul under the terms of a 1965 bilateral accord to establish a panel selected entirely by other countries.
Rather than comply, however, South Korea made its own offer — to open diplomatic talks regarding the issue on the condition that Japanese companies help compensate victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Tokyo quickly said it rejects the offer.
Should South Korea ignore the latest request, Japan will consider taking the dispute to the International Court of Justice.
Underscoring the frosty relations, Japanese officials say Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to forgo holding talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit next week in Osaka.
The dispute stems from South Korean court decisions ordering Japanese companies to compensate forced wartime laborers during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 through the end of World War II in 1945.
While Japan argues that the issue of compensation was settled by the 1965 accord, under which it provided South Korea with $500 million in financial aid, lawyers have pushed ahead with plans to seize and liquidate the companies’ assets.
In January, Japan asked to settle the issue through diplomatic channels. But South Korea did not oblige, maintaining that the issue should be left to its judicial system.
In a bid to break the impasse, Japan proposed on May 20 that the countries set up an arbitration panel consisting of one member each selected by the two countries and a third nation.
Under the dispute settlement process outlined in the 1965 accord, South Korea had 30 days to comply. South Korean officials had said they would “carefully review” the proposal but did not present a panel member by the deadline on midnight Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Japan pressed South Korea to move to the next step, in which each side has a further 30 days to each ask another country to choose a panel member. Those two countries would also select a third country to produce the final panel member.
Failing that, Foreign Minister Taro Kono has expressed willingness to take the dispute to the ICJ.
Kenji Kanasugi, director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, made the request to a senior official at the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo, expressing regret over Seoul’s failure to meet the deadline. The official said he would relay the request to the country.
Kono and his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, are planning to meet on the fringes of the June 28-29 G20 summit to discuss the issue, Japanese government officials said.
Often marred by differing views of wartime history and a territorial row, bilateral relations have become especially fraught in recent months due to the wartime labor issue, as well as an incident where a South Korean destroyer allegedly locked its fire-control radar onto a Japanese patrol plane in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
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