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Abe asks Seoul to act on forced labor ruling

Apr 10,2019
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked the Korean government to take swift action over a court ruling that awarded compensation for wartime forced labor, stressing the importance of bilateral relations, sources from the two countries told the JoongAng Ilbo on Tuesday.

According to the sources, Abe met with outgoing Korean Ambassador Lee Su-hoon for about 20 minutes at the prime minister’s residence on Monday. After expressing his sympathy over the recent wildfire in Gangwon, Abe raised his concerns about the troubled relations between the two countries, the sources said.

“There are various pending issues between the two countries,” Abe was quoted as saying. “The most important thing is that we manage the situation well so that the Korea-Japan relations won’t deteriorate rapidly.”

He then addressed the escalating diplomatic brawl that began with Korean Supreme Court rulings last year, when the country’s highest court ordered two Japanese companies - Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries - to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule.

While Tokyo maintains that a 1965 treaty normalizing bilateral ties with Seoul, which provided the Korean government with an economic cooperation fund, settled all compensation matters, the court ruled that the treaty did not affect individuals’ rights to claim damages.

“I understand that the Korean government is working hard to create measures on the trials, and I hope to see a concrete measure as soon as possible,” Abe was quoted as telling Lee.

Abe then asked the outgoing ambassador to relay his message to President Moon Jae-in.

Since the Supreme Court’s first ruling on the compensation for forced labor in October last year, the Korean government has not yet announced its stance. Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon and his office’s task force team, which is composed of concerned ministries, are currently working to present a position on the ruling. Sources in the Korean government said studies have been conducted to present various measures, including a plan to establish a foundation that will involve the Korean government, companies and Japanese firms. As of now, the Korean government maintains the official position that it will not intervene in the victims’ lawsuits, which were financed with their own money.

Abe reportedly requested that the Korean government announce its plan before the assets of Japanese firms in Korea, which were seized under court orders, are liquidated. At the request of the plaintiffs, Korean courts ordered the assets be seized earlier this year, as the Japanese companies refused to compensate wartime forced laborers.

“Ahead of the House of Councillors election in July, Abe appeared to be stressing the importance of ‘management’ and ‘speed’ as the keys for bilateral relations,” said a diplomatic source in Tokyo. The election is a crucial political test for Abe, whose third - and final - term as the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic party expires in September 2021.

If he loses the upcoming election, his control over the administration will quickly diminish, and the basis of his foreign, security and economic policies may be shaken. Sources said Abe’s message delivered to the outgoing ambassador means that he does not want any diplomatic surprise to affect the election.

“After imperial transition concludes in early May, the festivity will cool down, and Japan will quickly head to the election mood,” said a Japanese government source. “The hard-line ruling party lawmakers are likely raise their voices on economic retaliation toward Korea.”

Last month, Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso said tariffs were among the measures Japan could take against Korea if their dispute over wartime labor worsens.

If Seoul and Tokyo fail to iron out their issues before the election, critics in Japan will raise their voices, and the situation may affect Moon’s planned trip to Japan for the Group of 20 Summit in Osaka in June. Concerns within the Japanese government were delivered to Abe, and the Japanese prime minister ended up asking the outgoing ambassador for the Korean government to take swift action, sources said.

According to the sources, Lee only replied that he will deliver the message to Seoul. The Japanese government summoned Lee three times in October last year since the Supreme Court ruling to express its displeasure. It summoned Lee for the fourth time in January this year over an asset freeze ruling by a Korean court. Lee will soon return to Korea. Moon appointed Nam Gwan-pyo, the former second deputy chief of the National Security Office of the Blue House, as the new Korean ambassador to Japan. Nam, a career diplomat, served at the Korean embassy in Japan in the 1990s.

BY SEO SEUNG-WOOK, YOON SUL-YOUNG AND SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]