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Top envoy says that Tokyo won’t ‘rush’ Seoul

Dec 19,2018
Despite indications that Japan may be showing flexibility over Korea’s top court’s recent decisions calling on Japanese companies to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during colonial rule, there has been no shift in Tokyo’s official stance, according to multiple diplomatic sources.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said on Sunday that Japan “understands” that the Korean government may have difficulties responding to its calls for appropriate follow-up measures following the Supreme Court decisions. National broadcaster NHK reported that Kono, during a visit to Qatar, said Tokyo has “no plans to rush” Seoul on the matter.

He was quoted as saying that the Korean government “has to respond properly so as not to give any disadvantages to Japanese companies.”

Kono’s tone Sunday was lenient compared to his earlier remarks rejecting the Supreme Court decision and warning that the issue could overturn the legal basis for “friendly ties” between Seoul and Tokyo. He said Japan may take the issue to the International Court of Justice.

Kono also previously said that the Korean court’s “overturning of the international agreement” suggests the “collapse of international law.”

On Oct. 30, the Supreme Court ordered Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to compensate Korean victims of forced labor. On Nov. 29, the court made a similar ruling saying that Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries must compensate two sets of forced labor victims. Tokyo promptly protested the decisions, calling for an appropriate response from Seoul.

Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha held a phone conversation with Kono last week again explaining the Korean government’s position on the rulings and calling for a “prudent response” from Japan amid signs of strained diplomatic ties.

Kono’s remarks Sunday prompted speculation that Tokyo may be heeding Seoul’s calls for restraint.

Despite the shift in tone, a diplomatic source requesting anonymity said Tuesday, “The Japanese Foreign Ministry’s fundamental position has not changed. The Japanese side continues to wait for the Korean government to come up with appropriate measures.”

This indicates that regardless of the softer language, Tokyo’s stance remains the same.

However, diplomatic sources in Tokyo said that Kono’s remarks Sunday saying that Japan “no plans to rush” the Korean government were still noteworthy.

Tokyo maintains that the 1965 treaty normalizing bilateral relations with Seoul settled all compensation matters once and for all. In the agreement, Japan provided to the Korean government an economic cooperation fund amounting to $500 million in grants and loans.

In its rulings, the Supreme Court determined that the individual’s right to file claims for damages has not expired, noting that the 1965 claims agreement did not address the illegality of Japan’s colonial rule, which lasted from 1910 to 1945.

Kono has been under fire for dodging reporters’ questions at a Dec. 11 press conference on his view of remarks made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about negotiations on a peace treaty between Japan and Russia to formally end hostilities from World War II. Consequently, Kono posted an apology on his blog on Saturday.

Lavrov said that Japan should shift its stance and recognize the outcome of World War II, calling this the “first step” toward peace treaty talks, a position he repeated on a local radio program Monday. The two countries both claim four small islands off the coast of Hokkaido called the Northern Territories by Japan and Kuril Islands by Russia, a major hurdle for forging a bilateral treaty.

The Korean government last month announced it will dissolve a Japan-funded foundation meant to support women forced to work as sex slaves in Japan’s military brothels during World War II, further straining diplomatic relations.

Seoul and Tokyo signed a controversial deal on Dec. 28, 2015 that included an apology from Japan and a 1 billion yen ($8.9 million) fund for victims of the Japanese military’s wartime sexual slavery euphemistically referred to as comfort women. But the deal has been rejected by some victims and civic organizations. The Moon administration, while deciding not to scrap or renegotiate the agreement, has called the deal “flawed,” but recognized that it wants to continue to forge “future-oriented” relations with Tokyo.

BY CHUN SU-JIN, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]