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Japan's hopes that forced labor case would stay S. Korean issue are dashed

TOKYO -- Following a South Korean court's approval of a request to seize the South Korean assets of Japanese steelmaking giant Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. in connection with wartime forced labor, the Japanese government on Jan. 9 officially sought talks with the South Korean government.

This is the first time Japan has filed a request for negotiations with Seoul based on an agreement to settle property claims signed alongside a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries. It signals that the Japanese government has lost patience with the South Korean government's slow handling of the situation, and has taken a step toward a legal settlement.

At the same time, however, it means that Japan's hope of keeping the forced labor case a South Korean domestic issue did not pan out, and it has instead become a full-fledged diplomatic dispute. The administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will seek a way out of the quagmire by alluding to possible economic sanctions, but if South Korea sticks to its guns, a resolution could grow even more elusive.

"The move by the plaintiffs to seize the assets of a Japanese company is extremely regrettable," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a Jan. 9 news conference. His agitation over the South Korean government's slow response, and the resultant move to seize Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. assets in South Korea, was obvious. "We take the matter very seriously," he said.

Measures that the South Korean government said it would take over the case before the end of last year were never announced, and on Dec. 31, 2018, the plaintiffs -- South Koreans who had been forced laborers during the period of Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945, and their supporters -- filed paperwork with the court to seize Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal assets.

Prime Minister Abe announced Jan. 6 that he instructed his aides to "consider specific measures that would allow Japan to remain resolute under international law," but Tokyo had continued to hang on to the hope that the South Korean government would handle the matter. However, it emerged on Jan. 8 that a South Korean court had granted the plaintiffs' request to seize the Japanese company's South Korean assets.

"(Approval of the request) is a decision made by the South Korean authorities," said a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official. "When a case goes from being a domestic issue to an international one, Japan has no choice but to take action."

The request for talks with the South Korean government is the first part of the "specific measures" ordered by Prime Minister Abe. The 1965 agreement allows for the establishment of an arbitration panel that includes a third country if Japan and South Korea cannot reach a settlement. Japan, which is eyeing the possibility of referring the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), is hoping that South Korea will find itself forced to seriously search for a solution on the domestic front.

A senior Japanese government official, however, predicts that South Korea will not agree to the talks. Even if it did, the longer the talks are drawn out, the harder it will become to protect the Japanese steelmaker. An arbitration panel can only be set up or the case referred to the ICJ with the agreement of South Korea, just like the talks. If the plaintiffs move to sell the assets they seize, Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal could suffer real damage.

And if those assets were to be sold? In 2017, the Abe administration temporarily recalled the Japanese ambassador to South Korea to protest the installation of a "comfort woman" statue in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan. At the time, communications with the South Korean president were tied up. Furthermore, it takes a long time to pass Japanese legislation to implement economic sanctions such as raising tariffs on South Korean products or seizing Seoul's assets in Japan, according to a diplomatic source. There is also concern that Japan-South Korea cooperation regarding North Korea could weaken.

For the time being, Japan has no option but to use an arbitration panel to leverage the South Korean government into responding to the negotiation request. Contradictory claims by the two countries over a radar lock-on issue involving a South Korean Navy vessel and a Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force patrol plane have already heightened bilateral tensions. A person connected to the Japanese Foreign Ministry said, "There's no saying how South Korea will respond to our request for talks. Hopefully Japan's hard-line stance won't work against us."

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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