National / Politics

Japan and South Korea leaders vow to keep talking, but no progress made on wartime labor

Kyodo

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held talks in China on Tuesday, ending a 15-month hiatus in formal dialogue and marking a fresh sign of a nascent thaw in relations strained over wartime labor and trade issues.

During a roughly 45-minute meeting in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu, the leaders agreed to maintain dialogue but did not make substantive progress toward resolving the wartime forced labor compensation issue, which has sent bilateral ties to their lowest point in years.

Abe urged Moon to swiftly address the issue, which stems from South Korean court rulings ordering Japanese firms to pay compensation for forced wartime labor during the 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula, a senior Japanese government official said. Moon said he sees the need to resolve the issue at an early date, according to the official.

The meeting was being closely watched for hints on whether the Asian neighbors can break the stalemate and repair ties at a time when close cooperation is required to deal with issues related to North Korea.

“It’s extremely important for Japan and South Korea, together with the United States, to coordinate on North Korea and other security issues,” Abe told Moon at the outset of the meeting.

“I wish to improve this important Japan-South Korea relationship and hope to exchange candid views with you,” Abe said.

Moon said “the best way” to resolve issues of mutual concern is through face-to-face talks, adding that the two nations may be experiencing a difficult time but that they can never be separated.

Both leaders were in Chengdu for a trilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

The two leaders previously held a summit in September last year, before the South Korean court rulings were handed down.

With neither side budging on the wartime labor issue, bilateral ties had sunk dramatically. But a string of developments at the parliamentary and ministerial levels emerged in the lead up to Tuesday’s summit.

Lawmakers in South Korea submitted a bill last week to solicit donations from South Korean and Japanese firms, as well as the public, to secure funds to be used as compensation.

Japanese and South Korean trade officials held talks over Tokyo’s imposition of tighter export controls, which Seoul had viewed as retaliation in the wartime labor dispute.

On Friday, Japan eased some of its export controls on shipments to South Korea of three materials used to manufacture semiconductors and display panels.

The most recent encounter between Abe and Moon was an 11-minute conversation in November on the occasion of a multilateral meeting in Thailand. They did not hold a bilateral summit on the fringes of the Group of 20 leaders gathering in June.

Tokyo maintains that the issue of compensation was settled under a 1965 bilateral agreement and that it is Seoul that needs to take action, as the compensation orders in South Korea are in contravention of the accord. Japan has also sought to settle the dispute via an arbitration panel involving a third country, but Seoul did not respond to the request. South Korea, meanwhile, says its hands are tied because of the separation of powers. Seoul’s proposal to secure funds for compensation through the participation of companies from both nations, including those in the lawsuits, was rejected by Tokyo.

A bill for the measure, submitted to South Korea’s parliament, seeks donations “on a voluntary basis,” which is seen as aimed at addressing concerns in Tokyo that Japanese companies will be forced into contributing.

The United States did not intervene between Tokyo and Seoul until the U.S. allies came close to letting a military intelligence sharing pact collapse in November.

The termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, seen as useful in countering the North Korean missile threat, was averted after Seoul revisited an earlier decision not to renew