National / Politics

New Japan Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi holds firm that Seoul must end wartime labor row

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

Newly appointed Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said Wednesday that Tokyo urgently demands Seoul eliminate “violations of international law” regarding wartime Korean labor issues, adding that it is a top priority for Japan in handling the bilateral relationship.

Motegi, formerly the economic and fiscal policy minister, was appointed to his new position during last week’s Cabinet reshuffle and replaced Taro Kono, who is now defense minister.

Diplomatic observers had speculated as to whether the appointment of a new foreign minister would signal a policy shift by Tokyo, but Motegi so far has shown no signs of compromise as far as the wartime labor issue is concerned.

“What we need to seek now is a correction to the situations that violate international law,” Motegi said during a joint interview with multiple media outlets including The Japan Times. He refrained from answering when asked if he would take a “hard or soft” policy stance against South Korea.

“We haven’t shut down diplomatic channels for dialogue” but the wartime labor issue is a key priority for Tokyo, Motegi said.

He argued that “the foundation of the Japan-South Korean relationship has been overturned” due to the wartime labor issue and that Seoul must correct it “as soon as possible,” reiterating the official policy stance of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet.

Last year, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to pay damages to Koreans who they forced to work during World War II.

The two countries are said to have agreed in 1965 that they would settle all compensation issues involving Japan’s colonial rule, including those involving wartime labor issues, by concluding an economic cooperation pact. The agreement was attached to the basic treaty that normalized the postwar relationship between the two countries, after lengthy negotiations.

In 2005, the South Korean government officially reconfirmed that the pact did cover damage compensation for wartime labor. Tokyo has thus argued that Seoul should observe the pact by taking measures to avoid harming Japanese firms.

The South Korean government has so far not taken any action, saying it must observe the independence of the judiciary.

Motegi, a close aide to Abe, is considered a potential candidate to become a future prime minister. He was the chief trade negotiator with the United States right before his appointment as foreign minister.

Japan and the U.S. reached broad agreements on bilateral trade issues last month and are now trying to draft a new trade pact that would reduce Japanese tariffs on farm imports from the U.S., most notably beef and pork.

Whether Tokyo can draft a trade pact that would explicitly stop the U.S. from unilaterally raising tariffs on auto imports from Japan has been a focus of negotiations.

During the interview Wednesday, Motegi said he would explain details of the pact only after the top leaders of the two countries had signed and formalized the deal.

“We would publicize the contents (of the trade deal) only after we had reached (formal) agreements,” Motegi said.

Officials in Tokyo are also concerned U.S. President Donald Trump may start demanding Japan take on more of the financial burden of funding U.S. military forces stationed within the nation. The American president has repeatedly argued that allies with similar arrangements should pay more to maintain such troops.

The current host nation support pact expires at the end of March 2021, and Tokyo and Washington have yet to start new negotiations, Motegi pointed out. Currently the stationing costs of the U.S. forces are “appropriately shouldered” based on the current pact, agreed by the Japanese and U.S. governments, Motegi said.

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