• Kyodo

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Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, reaffirmed the importance of solving a bilateral dispute over wartime labor compensation during a brief meeting in Madrid on Sunday night, a senior Japanese official has said.

Motegi and Kang held talks for around 10 minutes in the Spanish capital on the sidelines of a ministerial conference of Asian and European countries, amid ongoing bilateral tension over the issue.

The two also discussed export controls and North Korea’s nuclear program.

Kang called for the quick withdrawal of the stricter regulations Japan imposed on exports to its neighbor of materials needed to manufacture semiconductors and display panels, according to the South Korean Foreign Ministry.

The two ministers shared an expectation of progress on the export controls issue during a director general-level meeting that began in Tokyo on Monday morning, the Japan Foreign Ministry official said.

The brief meeting came as ties between the neighboring countries remained at their lowest point in years over the wartime labor dispute and trade controls.

Relations soured after South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled last year that Japanese companies should compensate those subject to forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945.

While Japan argues that the issue of compensation was settled “finally and completely” by a 1965 bilateral agreement, the court said personal claims are still valid. South Korea’s government has refused to step in as doing so would violate the separation of powers.

Moon Hee-sang, the head of South Korea’s parliament, has proposed a bill to welcome donations from Japanese and South Korean companies and the public of both countries in order to provide funds for compensation.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday that Japan had conveyed its “unwavering” stance over the issue of wartime labor during the foreign ministers’ meeting. Japan has viewed the South Korean court orders as contravening the 1965 bilateral accord.

“We will continue to ask South Korea to deal with the issue in a sensible manner,” Suga said at a regular news conference.

On North Korea, Motegi and Kang confirmed their policy of strengthening bilateral as well as trilateral cooperation with the United States.

North Korea has recently been stepping up its provocative rhetoric, warning that it will restart nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests if its talks with Washington fail to achieve a breakthrough by the end of the yea — a deadline set by Pyongyang.

Motegi and Kang also confirmed that they will separately lay the groundwork for a meaningful summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to be held later this month in Chengdu, China.

Abe and Moon are slated to hold their first formal talks in more than a year on the sidelines of a trilateral summit with China, with the focus on whether they can ease the tensions that are already taking an economic toll and have threatened to undermine security cooperation in the face of North Korea’s missile threats.

The two ministers agreed to prepare for their next meeting, set for the summit in Chengdu, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry official.

A formal meeting between the two foreign ministers was initially planned for Monday in Madrid on the fringe of the Asia-Europe meeting, but several Japanese government sources said official talks were canceled due to scheduling difficulties.

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