Photo/IllutrationLawyers representing the South Korean plaintiffs speak to reporters in front of the headquarters of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district on Dec. 4, 2018. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Calls by South Korean plaintiffs in a lawsuit over wartime labor to seize assets of a major Japanese steelmaker have prompted Tokyo to seek talks with Seoul over a 1965 agreement reached when they restored diplomatic relations.

Japan insists that all wartime issues related to property and claims were settled under the bilateral agreement.

Matters came to a head following a decision by South Korea’s Supreme Court last October that ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to pay compensation to four South Korean wartime laborers.

After the company refused to comply with the court order, two of the plaintiffs applied to a district court on Dec. 31 to seize the company’s share in a South Korea-based joint venture with major steelmaker POSCO.

In Tokyo, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a Jan. 6 program aired on Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK), public broadcaster, “I have directed the relevant government agencies to consider concrete measures to take in the future.”

If such talks were held, it would be the first time for the neighboring Asian powers to do so since they signed the agreement.

Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula and made it a colony in 1910. The colonial period ended in 1945 with Japan's defeat in World War II.

Relations between the two countries remain soured over the issues of "comfort women," females forced to provide sex to wartime Japanese soldiers, and wartime concripted laborers.

The Japanese government maintains that the reparation issue involving wartime workers has been “thoroughly and conclusively solved,” based on the agreement.

On this basis, it says a South Korean court’s ruling to order Japanese company to provide compensation is unacceptable.

The bilateral agreement contains a provision that Japan and South Korea will hold talks when a dispute arises over how to interpret the agreement.

“Once assets of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal are seized, the likelihood of Japanese companies suffering further economic damage will likely increase,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official.

The official said the government will propose talks after it receives confirmation of a notice of seizure issued by the court.

That would require both governments to agree, a situation that remains unprecedented.

In 2011, South Korea proposed talks with Japan over the comfort women issue, but Japan refused.

On this occasion, it is possible that the South Korean government will reject Japan's overture for talks.

The Foreign Ministry official, however, emphasized the significance of requesting the talks on grounds that such a proposal would be an "effective way for Japan to appeal its viewpoint to the international community.”

If the talks break down, Tokyo and Seoul can seek arbitration involving a third country.