South Korean President Moon Jae-in appears receptive to holding talks with Tokyo on the issue of wartime labor to head off yet another topic that threatens to derail already fragile diplomatic relations.
A series of recent Supreme Court rulings in South Korea have ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to Koreans brought to work at Japanese mines, factories and dockyards during World War II.
Moon made his views clear while meeting a group of Japanese lawmakers eager to improve relations between the two countries.
Among those present at the Dec. 14 meeting was Fukushiro Nukaga, who heads a league of Diet members working on relations between Japan and South Korea.
Moon stated that while a bilateral agreement in 1965 that normalized relations between the two countries is still valid, “the right of individuals to seek compensation has not ceased to exist.”
A number of Japanese lawmakers said that Moon also touched on the need for bilateral discussions to seek a solution to an issue that has unsettled diplomatic relations.
The Japanese government has used the 1965 agreement on settlement of property and claims to insist that compensation issues from the wartime period have been settled. At the same time, the government has not gone so far as to argue that the right of individuals to seek compensation has also disappeared.
The South Korean Supreme Court rulings have stated the plaintiffs had the right to seek consolation money from Japanese companies because their employment during World War II was an inhumane and illegal act due to the fact that Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula was itself illegal.
According to sources at the South Korean presidential office, Moon told the Japanese lawmakers that the South Korean government would respect the Supreme Court rulings from the standpoint of separation of powers. He also said that the South Korean government planned to seek out measures to deal with the issue after thorough discussions.
Sources with the Japanese delegation said that Moon also indicated he wanted to initiate talks with Japan to overcome the gap that now exists between the 1965 bilateral agreement and the latest judicial interpretations.
Moon’s comments reflect the delicate position he finds himself.
While he pointed out that individuals had the right to seek compensation, he did not make any specific requests to the Japanese side for action.
That suggests that while Moon wants to impress upon the South Korean public that he empathizes with the demands made by the South Korean wartime workers, he does not want to further antagonize Japan and trigger an even deeper diplomatic rift.
With the South Korean government struggling to come up with measures that would satisfy the wartime workers, Moon clearly wants more time to deal with the issue and figure out how to coordinate steps with Japan.
At the same time, there are already signs that relations between the two nations are back on a downward slide.
A South Korean group of lawmakers working to improve ties with Japan held a joint meeting in Seoul on Dec. 14 with the visiting Japanese delegation. But in an unusual move, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not offer a congratulatory message to be read out.
It has been normal practice in the past for the prime minister to have a speech read.
Meanwhile, at his daily news conference on Dec. 14 in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on Moon’s statement that the South Korean government would respect the Supreme Court verdicts.