World

Japanese minister calls South Korea's ambassador 'rude' as economic dispute goes on

Japan's foreign minister on Friday summoned South Korea's ambassador and accused Seoul of violating international law by refusing to join an arbitration panel to settle a dispute over forced labour during the Second World War.

Japan has restricted some exports, Seoul courts may seize some Japanese assets amid age-old dispute

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, left, meets with Nam Gwan-pyo, South Korea's ambassador to Japan, at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo on Friday. Japan had summoned South Korea's ambassador to protest Seoul's refusal to join an arbitration panel to settle a dispute over Second World War labour. (Masanobu Kumagai/Kyodo News via AP)

Japan's foreign minister on Friday summoned South Korea's ambassador and accused Seoul of violating international law by refusing to join in an arbitration panel to settle a dispute over forced labour during the Second World War.

The neighbouring countries are quarrelling over South Korean court decisions ordering Japanese companies to compensate victims of forced labour during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono said after summoning Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo that Japan will "take necessary measures" against South Korea if interests of Japanese companies are harmed, without giving details.

Their talks were held in an icy atmosphere, briefly turning confrontational.

"It is extremely problematic that South Korea is one-sidedly leaving alone the situation that violates the international law, which is the foundation of our bilateral relationship," Kono told Nam. "The action being taken by the South Korean government is something that completely overturns the order of the international community since the end" of the Second World War.

Kono urged Seoul to immediately take action to stop the court process, under which the plaintiffs of the lawsuit are preparing to seize assets of the Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industry.

Nam defended his government and mentioned Seoul's proposal of creating a joint fund as a way to settle the dispute. Kono raised his voice, saying Tokyo had already rejected the idea. He also criticized the ambassador for being "rude" to suggest it again.

Japan says all compensation issues had been settled under the 1965 bilateral agreement and that the South Korean government's lack of intervention to stop the court process is a breach of the international treaty.

Tokyo is considering taking the issue to the International Court of Justice, although some officials say South Korea is expected to refuse going to court. Tokyo may seek damages from South Korea in case assets of Japanese companies are seized, Japanese media have reported.

Firefighters extinguish the flames in a burnt car after a man had set himself on fire in an apparent protest in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul early Friday. (Jongo Fire Station via Reuters)

Responding to Kono's remark, South Korea's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Japan still hasn't done enough to make amends for the sufferings South Koreans had gone through during the colonial past and that it should discuss ways to find solutions acceptable to both sides.

"To genuinely resolve the problem, Japan must look straightly into the unfortunate past and make efforts to heal the pain and scars of the victims," the ministry said. "We hope that the Japanese government would withdraw its unilateral pressure including the export restrictions of retaliatory character and return to the stage of diplomatic resolutions."

Seoul has protested Japan's tightened controls on sensitive high-tech exports to South Korea that could affect South Korean manufacturers as well as global supplies of smartphones and displays.

Apparent self-immolation by South Korean senior

The trade dispute adds to their already strained relations.

In Seoul, a 78-year-old South Korean man died hours after setting himself ablaze near the Japanese Embassy on Friday, police said.

Police said the man had phoned an acquaintance earlier to say he planned to self-immolate to express his antipathy toward Japan. 

Seoul has accused Tokyo of weaponizing trade to retaliate against the South Korean court rulings on compensating forced labour and plans to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization.

Tokyo said the export control issue has nothing to do with historical disputes but that the materials in question can be sent only to trustworthy trading partners. Without presenting specific examples, it has questioned Seoul's credibility in controlling the exports of arms and items that can be used for civilian and military purposes.

South Korea has proposed an inquiry by the UN Security Council or another international body on the export controls of both countries.

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