Japan and South Korea continued to be at loggerheads yesterday, accusing each other of flagrant violations of international law as ties continued on a downward spiral over wartime labour and trade disputes.
Still, in what may be a silver lining, South Korea's Defence Ministry said yesterday it remains committed to a military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo, which has also said it wants to keep the accord. Both nations are United States allies.
But ties are disintegrating on other fronts, with Japan protesting against South Korea's handling of their wartime labour row yesterday as "extremely rude" after Seoul missed Tokyo's deadline to designate a third country for arbitration.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono summoned South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo to his ministry and said: "What the South Korean government is doing is equal to subverting the international order built after World War II."
Hours later, South Korean deputy national security adviser Kim Hyun-chong said: "Japan's continued claims that the Republic of Korea is violating international law are simply wrong.
"The Supreme Court of Korea ruled that the Claims Settlement Agreement of 1965 between Korea and Japan did not cover crimes against humanity and violation of human rights against victims of forced labour... We would like to emphasise that, deep down, it was Japan that initially violated international law by an illegal act against humanity in the form of forced labour."
The bitterness is not confined to the governments. In Seoul yesterday, a 78-year-old South Korean man died hours after he set himself on fire near the Japanese embassy, with police saying that he did so to express his aversion to Japan. The man's father-in-law was reportedly conscripted as a forced labourer.
This unfolding dispute stems from a series of judgments by the South Korean Supreme Court since last October, ordering Japanese companies to pay damages to these labourers.
South Korea contends that the 1965 treaty, which normalised bilateral ties, does not preclude individuals from making claims.
Japan's position is that all wartime compensation has been fully settled under the agreement, with it having paid out US$500 million in grants and loans to Seoul.
Mr Kono yesterday cited Article 2 of the pact, which states: "(The) problem concerning property, rights and interests of the two contracting parties and their nationals (including juridical persons), and concerning claims between the contracting parties and their nationals ... is settled completely and finally."
Japanese firms in South Korea, following Tokyo's advice, have not acted on the Supreme Court rulings. This has led to court orders for the seizure of local assets, which may be liquidated. South Korea has also rejected Japan's efforts to bring the case to arbitration, while Japan rejected a counter-proposal that companies in both countries set up a joint fund to compensate victims.
Mr Kono said that Japan "will be taking necessary measures" against South Korea, calling on Seoul to "remedy its accumulated breaches of international law".
But Mr Kim countered that finding diplomatic solutions may be more productive than arbitration. He said: "It is usually difficult to reach a fundamental solution when two countries try to resolve a dispute through arbitration, as the court often rules only partially in favour of one party.
"There is also a tendency for the animosity between the people of the countries in dispute to grow in the drawn-out legal process, which will only impede future-oriented relations between them."
On trade, Mr Kim accused Tokyo of taking a "unilateral measure to restrict exports" of three materials - fluorine polyimide, photoresists and hydrogen fluoride (etching gas) - that strike at the heart of South Korea's semiconductor industry.
Japan, on paper, insisted that this measure was not retaliatory, but was taken over security concerns that sensitive material with military warfare potential was being smuggled out of South Korea. Its move, it said, was prompted by a "breach of trust", alleging Seoul's refusal to discuss these concerns.
Seoul has, in turn, accused Japan of violating World Trade Organisation rules by mixing politics and trade.
Mr Kim said Tokyo was erratic. "Japan initially cited the breach of trust arising from history issues, before claiming a defect within Korea's export control system. Today, Japan once again raised the issue of forced labour. It is very difficult to figure out exactly what Japan's position is."
South Korea's Trade Ministry said on Twitter yesterday that it "does not make logical sense" that Japan is citing damaged trust given that the two nations have had multiple working-level talks in recent years.
Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun said in an editorial this week that Seoul's criticism was "unreasonable" given that it is not on the white list of jurisdictions like the European Union.
But it added: "To make its assertion more persuasive, (Japan) should try to offer careful explanations, insofar as doing so would not hinder its export examinations."
• Additional reporting by Chang May Choon in Seoul
Key dates to watch
TOKYO/SEOUL • The Straits Times looks at some key upcoming dates amid worsening ties between Japan and South Korea.
The World Trade Organisation will discuss Japan's trade curbs at the request of South Korea, which says the restrictions flout the international body's rules. Japan, however, insists that it reserves the right to act on security concerns.
This is the earliest date that Japan may officially strike South Korea off its "white list" of trusted trading partners, after the end of a mandatory public consultation exercise.
South Korea is the only Asian nation among the 27 countries on the "white list", which refers to nations that Japan is confident of having robust export restrictions against the smuggling of materials with military warfare potential. If struck off, more goods bound for Seoul may be subject to tighter Customs control.
Both Koreas mark National Liberation Day, the day Japan surrendered in World War II and relinquished its 35-year colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula. As comfort women and wartime labour issues remain bitter flashpoints, the occasion could be ripe for anti-Japanese sentiment. AUG 23 If either Seoul or Tokyo wants to terminate their military intelligence sharing pact, the decision has to be made by this date.
Their security ally, the United States, has stressed the need for the pact to share information about common threats.
Walter Sim and Chang May Choon