Photo/IllutrationForeign Minister Taro Kono, far left, protests South Korea's failure to set up an arbitration panel during his July 19 meeting in Tokyo with South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo, far right. (Tamiyuki Kihara)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Foreign Minister Taro Kono summoned a top South Korean diplomat on July 19 to express his frustration after Seoul ignored a deadline to help establish an arbitration panel to deal with the compensation issue for wartime workers.

"What the South Korean government is doing now can be considered an attempt to turn upside down the world order created after the end of World War II," Kono told South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo.

Tokyo had set July 18 as the deadline for selecting third-party nations to sit on an arbitration panel to look into the recent rulings by the South Korean Supreme Court ordering a number of Japanese companies to pay compensation to former workers and bereaved family members.

But South Korea failed to respond to Japan's request. The plaintiffs said the laborers were forcibly brought to Japan to work at plants when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule.

The South Korean ambassador in turn brought up the tighter export control measures Japan recently imposed on materials used to manufacture semiconductors.

"Through the unilateral measures implemented by Japan, the people and companies of the two nations have fallen into a difficult situation and damage has been done," Nam said.

After the meeting, Kono told reporters that he would refrain from commenting on what future steps would be taken by the government.

Government officials are weighing their options because all the proposals made so far have been ignored by Seoul.

One step that has long been under consideration is taking the case to the International Court of Justice. But to have the ICJ hear the case would require the consent of the South Korean government.

Government officials view that step as a last resort given the refusal of South Korea to even enter into discussions based on the 1965 bilateral agreement that not only restored diplomatic ties, but in Tokyo's view "completely and finally" settled all wartime compensation claims by Koreans.

That 1965 agreement also stipulates that an arbitration panel made up of third-party nations be established within 30 days after one side requests it. However, the agreement has no provisions for proceeding if one of the two nations refuses to establish the panel.

Previously, Japan had asked for a different arbitration panel made up of Japan, South Korea and a third-party country, but Seoul refused to appoint a representative.

Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in the South Korean lawsuits are pushing ahead with procedures to sell off the seized assets of the Japanese companies held in South Korea. The government is preparing to seek compensation from the South Korean government if any Japanese company suffers financial damage by the steps taken by the South Korean plaintiffs.

An official with the South Korean Foreign Ministry said on July 18 that the government did not have to abide by the deadline set for that day by Japan because Tokyo had unilaterally selected the date.

South Korean government sources said no action had been taken on the arbitration panels because in Seoul's view the two sides had yet to enter into the discussions called for by the 1965 bilateral agreement should any wartime compensation issues be raised.

Under that agreement, the arbitration panel is only to be set up if negotiations between the two nations do not lead to a resolution of the dispute. But the agreement does not have specific provisions for how those negotiations should proceed.

South Korean sources said the government was still considering whether to enter into such negotiations.

Moreover, the South Korean government is claiming that the ball is now in Japan's court because the government has refused a proposal from Seoul to set up a joint fund to provide financial assistance to wartime laborers. The defendant companies in the South Korean lawsuits would be asked to contribute to the fund along with South Korean companies.

When the proposal was made in May, South Korea said it would enter into negotiations based on the 1965 agreement if Tokyo agreed to the fund proposal.

Kono expressed anger at Nam during their meeting when he brought up the proposal for the joint fund.

"We have already made it clear that we absolutely cannot accept the South Korean proposal," Kono said. "To bring it up again as though unaware of what we have said is extremely discourteous."

(This article was written by Tamiyuki Kihara in Tokyo and Hajimu Takeda in Seoul.)