Photo/IllutrationFormer wartime Korean laborers and their supporters give a news conference at the Seoul Central District Court after they filed a damages suit against four Japanese companies on April 4. (Hajimu Takeda)

After failing to gain direct negotiations, Tokyo said May 20 that it asked Seoul to enter an arbitration process over South Korean court orders for Japanese companies to pay compensation to wartime laborers.

Under the proposed process, the Japanese and South Korean governments will appoint one member each to an arbitration panel within 30 days, and another member will be added from a third country.

But it is unclear whether South Korea will go along with the proposal.

The clause for arbitration is included in a 1965 bilateral agreement on the settlement of property and claims stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

An arbitration panel has never been established under this clause, and there is no penalty for not appointing a member.

After South Korea’s Supreme Court in October ordered a Japanese company to compensate wartime Korean laborers, Japan argued that all wartime compensation issues were settled under the 1965 agreement.

Other South Korean courts issued similar rulings in the following months, and Tokyo criticized those decisions as running counter to international law.

Japan has repeatedly called for talks with South Korea over the issue, including proposed pre-arbitration discussions in January, but procedures for carrying out the court orders in South Korea have continued to move forward.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon said it is difficult for the South Korean government to respond because the issue concerns the judicial branch.

Japan’s request for arbitration came after lawyers for former wartime laborers asked a South Korean district court this month to sell the seized assets of Japanese companies for compensation payments.