National / Politics

Top Japanese and South Korean diplomats likely to discuss wartime labor issue at Madrid meet

Bloomberg, Kyodo, Staff Report

Top South Korean and Japanese diplomats will likely meet on the sidelines of a gathering of Asian and European foreign ministers later this month to discuss a resolution to a yearlong dispute, Yonhap news agency reported.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and her Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi, are expected to table the contentious wartime labor issue, the root of recent tensions between the two, at a bilateral meeting in Madrid, the report said, without citing the source of the information. The meeting is expected to take place around the Dec. 15-16 ministerial gathering, and before an expected trilateral summit with China later in the month.

A disagreement over compensation for Koreans who worked for Japanese companies during the 1910-1945 colonization by Japan spread to various sectors this year. Tokyo has implemented tighter export control for certain goods destined for South Korea, which threatened to terminate a bilateral military intelligence-sharing pact. Many South Korean consumers have also boycotted Japanese products and canceled trips to Japan.

Kang and Motegi last met in late November, just hours after Seoul temporarily and conditionally suspended a termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, a military information pact inked by the two countries.

Meanwhile, Japanese and South Korean lawmakers will cancel their annual meeting aimed at deepening bilateral ties this year following a controversial remark by a South Korean lawmaker about the former emperor, a source close to the matter said Sunday.

The meeting was scheduled to be held in Japan this year but Japanese lawmakers are opposed to meeting South Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang, who said earlier this year that Japan’s emperor should apologize for so-called comfort women.

The term “comfort women” is 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.

The decision to cancel the meeting comes after soured bilateral relations saw a pause in their deterioration last month as South Korea suspended its plan to terminate a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan in a last-minute decision.

The annual meeting was launched in 2016 to strengthen bilateral exchanges after Tokyo and Seoul struck a deal the previous year to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the dispute over such Korean women. As part of the deal, Japan decided to contribute ¥1 billion from its state budget in a foundation to be established by South Korea to provide support for those women.

In February this year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in drew a backlash from Japan for saying an apology from then Emperor Akihito would solve the long-standing issue over comfort women.

“It only takes one word from the prime minister, who represents Japan — I wish the emperor would do it since he will step down soon,” he said in an interview. “Isn’t he the son of the main culprit of war crimes?” Moon said. He made the comments ahead of the April abdication of Emperor Akihito, the elder son of Emperor Hirohito, who is posthumously known as Emperor Showa.

Moon offered apologies later for the comment.

His remarks followed South Korean court decisions last year ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation for forced labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Tokyo’s decision in July to tighten some trade controls against Seoul has seen the two countries’ relations sink to the lowest point in years.

In October, the head of Japan’s Upper House sent a letter to Moon asking him to retract the comments, according to people familiar with the matter.

Since no reply was received from him, Upper House President Akiko Santo decided not to hold talks with him on the sidelines of a multilateral meeting in Tokyo last month.