SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A recent court ruling in South Korea has heightened the need for Seoul and Tokyo to step up efforts towards a diplomatic solution to the longstanding issue of compensation to South Korean men forced to work for Japanese firms during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean peninsula.
The Anyang branch of the Suwon District Court earlier this month ordered the seizure of about 850 million won (S$988,000) worth of bonds held by a subsidiary of Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in a local company to provide compensation to four of the forced labour victims.
In October 2018, South Korea's Supreme Court made a landmark verdict that ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay 80 million won to 150 million won in damages to each of the four victims who filed a compensation suit against it.
The Japanese firm has refused to follow the ruling, citing "legal obstacles to the forcible execution of the order".
The latest ruling, if upheld by the upper court despite a possible appeal from the subsidiary of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, would make it easier to secure cash to provide compensation to the victims.
But the measure is certain to further aggravate Seoul-Tokyo ties, which are strained over issues stemming from Japan's 1910-1945 colonisation of the peninsula.
Japan's government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, told reporters last week that a possible liquidation of assets held by a Japanese company in South Korea would push bilateral relations into "a serious situation".
Tokyo has argued that all reparation issues between the countries were settled in a final and complete manner under a 1965 treaty that normalised bilateral ties.
The seizure of a Japanese firm's bonds in a South Korean company would also risk rattling the foundation of bilateral trade. Many Japanese firms involved in the wartime forced labour would shun South Korean businesses.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in's administration has been criticised for being negligent in working out diplomatic solutions to the forced labour and other historical issues with Tokyo, letting them be complicated by court rulings here.
Since late last year, Mr Moon and his aides have expressed intention to handle discord with Japan in a more flexible way.
In a news conference in January, Mr Moon said it was undesirable to cash in assets held by Japanese companies here for compensating South Korean victims forced to work for them during the colonial era.
He stressed that priority should be given to finding a diplomatic solution to prevent disputes over historical matters from holding back the two countries from building a forward-looking partnership.
But little progress has been made in turning his rhetoric into substantial action.
Rather, Seoul-Tokyo ties seem to have been further strained in the wake of Mr Moon's decision not to attend the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games last month.
The decision was made as Mr Moon was disappointed with the Japanese government's refusal to take what Seoul saw as a reciprocal measure needed to move forward bilateral relations.
Mr Moon and his aides were said to specifically hope that Tokyo would lift curbs on the export of high-tech materials to South Korea, which it imposed in an apparent reprisal for the 2018 ruling by the top court here.
Seoul and Tokyo are now running against time to work out a diplomatic solution, as the legal process for compensation to the forced labour victims has taken a more concrete form.
What is worrying is that it appears difficult to build momentum to move in that direction both in Seoul and Tokyo, with Mr Moon's five-year tenure ending next May and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga struggling to stay in power amid plummeting approval ratings.
But they still need to step up efforts to resolve the longstanding reparations issue through a diplomatic and political framework. The two leaders should consider meeting in person to make a breakthrough in frayed ties between their nations.
Politicians and civic leaders in South Korea and Japan alike are also urged to try to help find and implement a mutually acceptable solution.
Complicated issues between sovereign states cannot be left solely to judicial proceedings in one country. Certainly, a judicial ruling should not be disregarded, but it cannot be used as a pretext for abandoning diplomatic efforts.
- The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.