South Korea to find 'desirable solution' to wartime forced labour dispute with Japan

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin (left) and Japanese counterpart Yoshimasa Hayashi in Tokyo on July 18, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL - South Korea's Foreign Minister Park Jin has pledged to work hard in finding a "desirable solution" to the thorny wartime forced labour dispute that has caused relations with Japan to sink to the lowest in recent years.

He said this during a meeting with his Japanese counterpart Yoshimasa Hayashi in Tokyo on Monday (July 18), with both sides agreeing that an "early resolution" was necessary, according to a statement issued by South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This marks the first bilateral meeting between the two countries' top diplomats in over four years. It is viewed as an early effort by the administration of new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to mend soured ties.

Mr Hayashi stressed the need for the two sides to address pending issues and develop relations "based on the foundation of friendship and cooperation the two countries have built since the normalisation of our diplomatic relations in 1965", according to Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The two ministers also discussed various issues of mutual concern, including North Korea's growing nuclear threat.

The regime has conducted at least 18 rounds of missile tests this year - more than in the last two years combined - and is expected to carry out a nuclear test soon.

The ministers agreed to "respond resolutely" to additional provocations by the North and strengthen trilateral cooperation with their mutual ally, the United States, so as to pursue a "flexible and open diplomatic approach while keeping the door for dialogue open".

Mr Park also said he would continue to make efforts in restoring people-to-people exchanges with Japan post-Covid-19, such as resuming visa-free entry. Direct flights between the two countries have already resumed.

Mr Park suggested that Seoul and Tokyo should develop ties "in accordance with the spirit and purpose" of a landmark declaration signed in 1998, which marked a willingness by both sides to put historical issues aside and focus on building future-oriented ties.

He also conveyed to his Japanese counterpart "deep condolences" over the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Mr Yoon, who leans conservative, has repeatedly emphasised the need to reconcile with Japan in his push to strengthen South Korea's security alliance with the US.

Ties with Japan soured in 2018 after South Korea's top court ordered Japanese companies Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel Corp to compensate Koreans who were forced to work for them during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule. But the firms refused to pay, insisting that all reparation issues were settled under a 1965 bilateral agreement to normalise ties.

A provincial court then ordered the sale of seized assets of the companies as compensation, but they are appealing against the decision.

The dispute was later exacerbated by a trade spat over export restrictions imposed by Japan on chemicals essential to South Korea's semiconductors industry, and Seoul's 2019 decision to terminate an intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo, which was later retracted.

Japan had been cold towards attempts by the former Moon Jae-in administration to restore ties, insisting that Seoul must first resolve the forced labour issue.

Observers voiced cautious optimism towards warming ties after a consultative body comprising government officials, representatives of forced labour victims and experts gathered twice earlier this month to discuss compensation for the victims.

One possible solution that came up during the discussions is for the South Korean government to compensate the victims on behalf of the Japanese companies.

Mr Park on Monday pointed out that a solution must be found before South Korea's Supreme Court issues a final verdict on whether to allow the liquidation of seized Japanese assets. A decision is due by August or September, according to local reports.

Tokyo has urged Seoul to avoid the liquidation of assets and warned of serious bilateral consequences if it happens.

Mr Park's three-day visit is expected to include a courtesy call on Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Tuesday and meetings with other senior Japanese officials.

He had described his trip as "very meaningful" to South Korean media and said he would convey Mr Yoon's strong will to improve relations with Japan.

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