Japan, South Korea diplomats trade words in escalating dispute over wartime forced labor

Published July 19, 2019, 1:50 PM

by Martin Sadongdong & Antonio Colina

By Reuters

TOKYO/SEOUL – Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono summoned South Korea’s ambassador on Friday in a deepening diplomatic dispute over compensation for Korean wartime forced labor that threatens global supply of memory chips and display screens.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono attends a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia May 10, 2019. (REUTERS / Evgenia Novozhenina / File Photo / MANILA BULLETIN)
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono attends a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia May 10, 2019. (REUTERS / Evgenia Novozhenina / File Photo / MANILA BULLETIN)

The dispute took a tragic turn earlier on Friday when a South Korean man set himself on fire in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in an apparent protest.

South Korea’s ambassador to Japan, Nam Gwan-pyo, was summoned to meet Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono a day after a midnight deadline set by Japan for South Korea to accept third-country arbitration of the forced labor dispute passed.

South Korea has rejected third-country arbitration and Kono said Seoul must take swift measures to correct what Japan says was an improper ruling last year by South Korea’s Supreme Court ordering two Japanese firms to compensate the wartime workers.

Japan says the issue of compensation was settled under a 1965 treaty which established diplomatic relations between the two nations post World War Two.

“What the South Korean government is doing now is equivalent to subverting the post-World War Two international order,” Kono said at the start of the meeting.

Nam responded that South Korea was working every day to create an environment where the lawsuits could be dealt with in a way that would be acceptable to both sides and not harm bilateral ties.

The two diplomats exchanged testy remarks in front of reporters, with Kono interrupting when Nam said South Korea had already proposed a plan to resolve the issue.

“Hold on,” Kono said. “We’ve already told the South Korean side the South Korean proposal was totally unacceptable, and that is not something that would redress the situation where international law is violated. It is extremely impertinent to propose it again by pretending to not know that.”

Neither official specified what that plan was, but last month Japan rejected a South Korean proposal to form a joint fund with Japan to compensate South Korean plaintiffs.

South Korea’s Trade Ministry on Friday repeated calls for Japan to hold serious talks by July 24 over Tokyo’s tighter export controls of high-tech materials to South Korean chipmaking giants imposed early this month.


Officials said the South Korean man who set himself alight outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul was in a critical condition.

The 78-year-old man, surnamed Kim, drove up to the building around 3:20 a.m. (1820 GMT Thursday), stopped in front of the gate and set fire to the car while sitting in it, an official at Seoul’s Jongno Fire Station said.

The man’s father-in-law was said to be a victim of forced labor by Japanese firms during World War Two and he may have acted in protest against Japan’s export curbs, a South Korean TV broadcaster said, quoting the police.

Police and fire officials both declined to comment on the man’s possible motivations, citing ongoing investigations.

Compensation of South Koreans for labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula has soured relations between the United States’ closest Asian allies.

When asked about the possibility of taking the forced labor dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura told a regular news conference that Japan has been “considering various measures” but would not comment on the ICJ.


Anger over the South Korea-Japan dispute has prompted a widespread boycott of Japanese products and services in South Korea, from beer to clothes and travel, disrupting businesses already facing the worst economic climate in a decade.

Japan has said it implemented the export curbs over South Korea’s “deficiencies” in its export control systems and not in reaction to the laborers dispute, but South Korea has called the restrictions “unjust economic retaliation”.

Lee Ho-hyeon, a director general at South Korea’s trade ministry, said Japan’s plan to remove South Korea from its “white list” of countries with minimum trade restrictions should be based on “clear evidence and facts.”

“There are major concerns that such a move would have a grave impact on not only the economies in both countries, but the global supply chain,” Lee said at a televised briefing.

South Korea’s Samsung Electronics (005930.KS) has sent letters to partners urging them to stockpile more Japanese components in case Tokyo expands its export restrictions.

On Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in met major party leaders and vowed to work together to resolve the dispute with Japan.

A senior national security adviser told lawmakers at the meeting that South Korea could reconsider an intelligence sharing pact it has with Japan if the dispute worsens, though a spokeswoman for the presidential Blue House later said they see the two issues as separate.

Trade minister director general Lee said that at a meeting with Japanese officials last week, Seoul had “clearly” demanded the export curbs be removed, refuting Japan’s claims that such a demand was not made.

Lee also said the ministry wanted to deliver a statement calling for the withdrawal of the export curbs to Japan. However, Japan declined to receive the statement after hearing its content, he said.