• Kyodo, AFP-JIJI


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday to stick to a 1965 bilateral agreement designed to settle all wartime compensation issues, amid a lingering dispute over the matter.

Abe and Moon met on the outskirts of Bangkok at Moon’s request, at a time when bilateral ties have deteriorated to their poorest state in years over a wartime labor compensation dispute that has evolved into a tit-for-tat trade spat. The meeting marked the first talks between the two leaders since their formal one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September last year.

During their 11-minute conversation, in a waiting room ahead of a summit involving leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China and South Korea, Abe and Moon agreed on the need to resolve outstanding bilateral issues through dialogue, the South Korean presidential office said. They reaffirmed the importance of the two countries’ ties in the “very friendly and serious” face-to-face meeting, it said.

“The two leaders agreed on the view that Korea-Japan ties were important and reaffirmed the principle that bilateral issues should be resolved through dialogue,” South Korean presidential spokeswoman Ko Min-jung told reporters.

Also speaking to reporters, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Akihiro Nishimura said Abe had conveyed to Moon Tokyo’s “basic stance,” which is that the issue of compensation was settled by the 1965 agreement under which Seoul was provided with $500 million in the form of “economic cooperation.” Moon also expressed hope for “substantial progress” in improving ties, and proposed dialogue involving high-level officials, if necessary, the presidential office said.

In response, Abe had suggested the two neighbors should make efforts to explore solutions “through every possible measure,” the South Korean representative said.

However, Nishimura only said that Abe had reiterated his position that outstanding bilateral issues should be settled by “exchanges between diplomatic authorities.”

It remained to be seen when the two leaders would be able to hold a formal meeting, with Nishimura saying that Abe and Moon did not touch on the possibility of holding official talks in the future.

The two were also said to have shaken hands and chatted with each other during a gala dinner the previous evening.

Moon did not attend Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony late last month but instead sent South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, who handed Abe a private letter from Moon. South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha explained that Moon had expressed his openness to talks with Abe in the letter.

Tensions between the neighbors have escalated since October last year when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel Corp. to pay reparations to South Koreans forced to work in the firm’s factories during Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. was handed a similar order in November.

Japan maintains that the issue of compensation was settled when the countries established ties under the 1965 agreement.

The dispute has spilled over into the areas of trade and security. Japan imposed stricter export controls on key materials needed by South Korea’s tech industry, while Seoul has said it will end a military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo that is scheduled to expire later this month. Tokyo has said its decision was made on national security grounds, but the move was widely seen as a response to the compensation rulings.