Japan may take wartime labour row with South Korea to International Court of Justice

Kim Seong-ju, a victim of wartime forced labour during the Japanese colonial period, arrives with relatives of other victims in front of the Supreme Court in Seoul, in 2018.
Kim Seong-ju, a victim of wartime forced labour during the Japanese colonial period, arrives with relatives of other victims in front of the Supreme Court in Seoul, in 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Japan may take a dispute with South Korea over wartime labour to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), after Seoul snubbed its deadline on Thursday (July 18) to choose a third country for arbitration on the issue.

"I don't think we need to be restricted by the date set unilaterally and arbitrarily by Japan," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim In-chul said at a regular press briefing in Seoul on Thursday.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono is set to summon South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo for talks on Friday morning to assert Japan's position that South Korea's inaction violates international law.

Separately, South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a rare meeting with opposition party leaders, vowing to work across party lines to resolve the conflict with Japan. This comes as South Korea's central bank on Thursday cut its policy rate for the first time in three years, in an attempt to boost its economy as growth is threatened by a trade dispute with Japan.

Tokyo slapped export restrictions on Seoul over three raw materials that are vital to its semiconductor industry, over security concerns of potential misuse for military warfare. But Japan vehemently denies any link between the trade curbs and the wartime labour issue, though many are unconvinced and see the measures announced this month as retaliation for the wartime labour issue.

Meanwhile, United States national security adviser John Bolton is said to be making a trip to Japan and South Korea next week in a bid to mediate in the widening political rift, which has threatened to upend global supply chains.

Last October, the South Korean Supreme Court for the first time ordered Japanese steelmakers to pay compensation to wartime labour victims, opening the door to further lawsuits.

Lawyers said on Tuesday that they will seek a court order to forcibly liquidate the local assets of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries after the company, acting in line with Tokyo's advice, failed to respond to a Monday deadline for talks.

Tokyo sees the attempted asset seizure as a red line and Mr Kono said this week: "We will have no choice but to take action if real harm is done to Japanese companies."

Tokyo maintains that all wartime compensation has been fully paid out under a 1965 treaty to normalise bilateral ties. Tokyo has fully paid out a total of US$500 million (US$4 billion or S$5.4 billion in today's terms) in grants and loans to Seoul - or about six or seven times more than the national budget of South Korea at the time.

Under the treaty, both countries are supposed to resolve any disputes over wartime issues through diplomatic channels. But South Korea shunned Japan's outreach for talks after the court judgments last year.

The second step was for both nations to each appoint an arbitrator, which South Korea also ignored. But it offered a counter proposal that firms in both countries jointly form a fund to compensate the wartime labourers - a proposal that was promptly rejected by Japan.

The third step, for which Japan's deadline was yesterday, was for South Korea to choose a third country, which will then name an arbitrator. It appears difficult to find a way out of the dispute as both governments seem intent to give each other the cold shoulder. Now, after trade officials from both sides gave clashing accounts of their talks in Tokyo last Friday, Japan is set to slam the door on further trade talks, citing a damage in trust.

The Mainichi Shimbun said in an editorial on Thursday: "It is the role of diplomacy to search for common ground while pursuing long-term benefits. However, if the two leaders are proactively provoking nationalism, no diplomatic solution can be achieved. In fact, national sentiment in both countries would only worsen."