Japan looking to escalate South Korean wartime labour dispute to UN court

Julian Ryall
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Japan looking to escalate South Korean wartime labour dispute to UN court

Japan is preparing to escalate a dispute with South Korea over compensation for wartime labour to the International Court of Justice if Seoul does not agree to arbitration on the matter, observers say.

On Monday, Tokyo formally requested that an arbitration panel be set up, including a member from a third country, citing the terms of a 1965 treaty to normalise relations between the pair after the end of the second world war.

South Korea’s foreign ministry confirmed that it received Japan’s official letter and said it will “carefully” review the request “considering related elements”.

But Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, said that Seoul was unlikely to agree to arbitration.

“They have already rejected the previous step spelled out in the 1965 agreement, for bilateral talks, on the grounds that the government cannot interfere in judicial decisions,” he said. “So they will find it difficult to justify reversing that position as it will appear to the Korean public that their leaders have given in to Japanese pressure.”

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Seoul and Tokyo have been at loggerheads for months over the compensation issue, which stemmed from a series of South Korean court decisions last year ordering Japanese companies whose predecessors used forced labour during the 1910-1945 colonial occupation of the peninsula to pay up.

South Korea has declined to attend bilateral talks on the matter, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who said the Japanese government had “determined that it is impossible to solve this issue through negotiations”.

Based on the 1965 treaty, “the South Korean government is obliged to agree to arbitration,” he said.

The treaty states that disputes should be settled through diplomatic channels and matters for which a settlement cannot be reached should go to arbitration. It spells out terms for the two countries to select a third-party arbitrator on their own, or have appointments made if they cannot decide. Under its terms, South Korea has to respond to Japan’s request within 30 days of receiving an official letter.

If Seoul does not respond, Tokyo looks likely to file a complaint with the International Court of Justice, according to Shimada of Fukui Prefectural University.

“That is a course of action that officials of the Foreign Ministry are now openly advocating because they are very reluctant to start imposing sanctions on another nation, which would be Japan’s only other possible course of action,” he said.

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Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of international relations at Tokyo’s International Christian University, predicted that the international court would have “sympathy for Japan” and be “far less politicised”.

“Japan has offered bilateral talks and [it is] offering an arbitration process, but the Koreans are refusing to engage,” he said.

“The 1965 treaty stated clearly that there would be no more reparations, but now Korea is walking that agreement back.”

Nagy said Moon was “falling back on pursuing issues that are popular with Koreans to earn political points”, amid a slowing economy, his own flagging popularity and his administration’s stalled policy of engagement with Pyongyang.

South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled in November that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries must pay between 100 million won and 150 million won (US$84,000 to US$126,000) to each of five plaintiffs who were forced to work in a military factory, a month after finding Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation liable in a similar case. The country’s courts have ordered the seizure of assets in South Korea of entities associated with the Japanese firms, such as stocks in joint ventures.

There are more than a dozen other lawsuits in the pipeline, affecting about 70 Japanese companies, according to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Japan says all claims relating to the colonial period were settled under the 1965 treaty, which was accompanied by a payment of US$300 million, and that South Korea should be responsible for any compensation. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said the treaty doesn’t prevent Koreans from suing Japanese firms and that the decisions of the courts should be respected.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg

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