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No way out visible in dispute between Japan, S. Korea over former conscripted workers

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left, Mainichi) and South Korean President Moon Jae-in (AP)

TOKYO/SEOUL -- The conflict between Japan and South Korea over the issue of former South Korean laborers forced to work at Japanese factories during World War II remains without a solution as Seoul did not respond to Tokyo's demand to answer its call to hold government consultations on the issue by the Feb. 8 deadline set by Japan.

The current conflict stems from the recent decision by the South Korean Supreme Court in October last year that Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. must compensate four former forced laborers. The Japanese government maintains that the issue of redress stemming from Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 through 1945 was settled "completely and finally" by the 1965 agreement between Tokyo and Seoul, but the South Korean judiciary began procedures to seize the assets of the Japanese company on Jan. 9 based on the high court ruling, prompting Tokyo to seek consultations with Seoul.

The Japanese government is now considering calling for the establishment an arbitration commission attended by the representatives of the two countries and an arbiter from a third country, or members from three countries other than Japan and South Korea.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a Feb. 8 news conference that the South Korean government "has not taken measures to correct the state of violating the (redress) agreement, and the situation is extremely serious." His comment came in response to Seoul's failure to accept Tokyo's call for bilateral consultation.

With the South Korean government's unwillingness to move, a senior Japanese official said, "We have no choice but to go to court." The official's comment suggests Japan could move to convene an arbitration panel or refer the controversy to the International Court of Justice.

Both of these options would require South Korean agreement to proceed, but it is not clear if that would be granted.

If the seizure of Japanese company assets proceeds, the Japanese government will take countermeasures, including economic sanctions. Such a move would trigger retaliation from South Korea, the third largest trading partner for Japan after China and the United States, and the Japanese economy would be destined to suffer in such a scenario.

Faced with a deadlock, a Japanese government official says Tokyo "has no choice but ignore South Korea." A senior Foreign Ministry official explained that Japan is not taking the dispute to the arbitration commission right away "in a bid to show to the international community that Japan is making efforts to discuss the matter."

Meanwhile, a South Korean Foreign Ministry official reiterated its earlier position on Feb. 8 that Seoul is "reviewing" the Japanese request for consultation "considering a variety of factors, including the redress agreement."

The South Korean Foreign Ministry has said it is "carefully reviewing" the request, suggesting that it would take some time to respond. The administration of President Moon Jae-in, in the meantime, says diplomatic discussions are possible, but it has not indicated how it plans to respond to the Supreme Court decision more than three months after the ruling, merely saying that it "respects" the judiciary.

A number of experts have proposed the establishment of a fund to deal with the redress issue, but a spokesperson for the presidential Blue House strongly criticized such an option as "violating common sense" on Jan. 26.

With the approaching centennial of the 1919 March 1st Movement that sought independence from Japan's colonial rule, the South Korean government cannot take action that could be construed as a compromise to its Tokyo. This means that Seoul is not likely to make a positive move on the redress issue anytime soon.

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department, and Chiharu Shibue, Seoul Bureau)

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