• Kyodo

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A South Korean court on Tuesday gained the right to order the sale of assets belonging to a Japanese steel-maker over a 2018 top court wartime forced labor compensation order that has roiled ties between the two countries.

Monday was the last day before the Daegu District Court's Pohang branch could legally consider court documents regarding its seizure of the Nippon Steel Corp. assets, by way of publishing them on its website for the last two months.

The court is expected to begin considering in earnest the ordering of the assets' sale to pay each of the four Korean plaintiffs the 100 million won (¥8.9 million) in damages the Supreme Court found they are entitled to receive.

Nippon Steel issued a statement Tuesday saying it plans to file an immediate appeal once the court approves the asset seizure. It will have one week to do so before the seizure is finalized.

It is expected to take at least several months before the assets can be liquidated upon a court order and proceeds from the sale can be paid to the plaintiffs. But Tuesday's development has taken the already chilled Japanese-South Korean ties closer to a precipice.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Tuesday that Tokyo will "continue to firmly handle" the matter while keeping "a range of options" in mind.

Japan has taken the position that the issue of claims stemming from its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula has been settled under a bilateral accord signed alongside a 1965 treaty that established diplomatic ties. And it has warned that Tokyo will retaliate in the event the business interests of Japanese firms are harmed.

South Korea, for its part, is said to be considering taking tit-for-tat measures. South Korean media reported Tuesday that the government is considering those which "correspond to" Japanese measures taken in retaliation.

Tokyo is reported to be weighing tougher visa requirements for South Korean visitors, temporarily recalling its ambassador from Seoul, imposing additional tariffs on South Korean products and restricting remittances to South Korea, among other measures.

Nippon Steel's assets in South Korea were seized by the district court after it failed to pay damages to the plaintiffs following an October 2018 Supreme Court ruling that found the men were mobilized to work for Japan Iron & Steel Co., Nippon Steel's forerunner, in the 1940s while the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule.

The company did not comply with the compensation order in accordance with the Japanese government's stance on the matter.

As a result, the plaintiffs had a portion of the company's shares in Posco-Nippon Steel RHF Joint Venture, a joint venture with South Korean steel-maker Posco, seized via the court and in May 2019 asked the court to order the sale of the shares.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. is also among the Japanese companies whose assets have been seized in South Korea in connection with wartime labor compensation claims. The country's top court in November 2018 ordered the company to pay compensation to former laborers.

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