Seoul – Tokyo reacted with skepticism on Monday after South Korean President Moon Jae-in signaled for the first time opposition to the possible sales of Japanese companies’ assets to compensate groups of South Koreans over wartime labor.
Moon’s remarks, in which he labeled the possible sales as “undesirable” for bilateral ties, come as plaintiffs who won damages suits against two Japanese companies in South Korea’s Supreme Court in 2018 over forced labor during World War II continue to seek asset sales through the country’s courts.
Bilateral ties have sunk to the lowest point in decades following the rulings, and they could be further strained after a Seoul court earlier this month ordered the Japanese government to pay damages to former “comfort women.”
The term comfort women is a euphemism for women, many of whom were Korean, who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II.
Previously, the South Korean leader had only expressed a reluctance to intervene in legal procedures. But many in the Japanese government remain skeptical of Moon’s ability to stick to his word.
“Unless the South Korean side presents a solution, the situation will not change,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said.
Japanese officials are suspicious of Moon’s change in tone, with another senior Foreign Ministry official questioning “his true intentions.”
Another said that “nothing has effectively changed from (Moon’s) stance of avoiding intervention, as he didn’t say ‘stop the asset sale.'”
“It’s important that he puts his words into action,” an official at the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Manabu Sakai said during a news conference Monday that Tokyo will take note of Moon’s comments but wants to observe South Korea’s actions.
The Japanese government, which takes the position that a 1965 bilateral agreement settled all claims related to its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, has criticized the rulings in both cases.
At Monday’s New Year news conference in Seoul, Moon said he felt “a bit perplexed” by the Jan. 8 comfort women ruling as it came amid efforts between the two countries to solve other ongoing issues, including the wartime labor compensation issue and a row over export controls.
The president said he acknowledges that a deal struck by Seoul and Tokyo in 2015 to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the longstanding comfort women dispute is an “official one between the governments” and that he will explore solutions based on that agreement.
Moon also said South Korea and Japan will discuss the issue so the two countries can come up with solutions that are also satisfactory to the plaintiffs.
As part of the 2015 deal, the Japanese government paid ¥1 billion, which was distributed through a foundation to former comfort women and the families of those who died.
However, the Moon government dissolved the foundation in 2019 after concluding that the deal had failed to properly reflect the women’s wishes.
The Japanese government declined to be involved in the comfort women lawsuit, citing sovereign immunity under international law that allows a state to be shielded against the jurisdiction of foreign courts.
But the Seoul Central District Court, in its ruling, brushed aside the argument and determined that the Japanese government committed “intentional, systematic and wide-ranging criminal acts against humanity.”
It was the first such ruling in South Korea. The ruling is expected to become final at the end of Jan. 22 as the Japanese government does not plan to appeal it.
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