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Japan, South Korea Tackle Wartime Labor Issue That’s Soured Ties

(Bloomberg) -- South Korea and Japan tried to resolve a dispute over compensation on wartime conscripted labor that has sent ties to new depths, causing difficulties for the US which relies on the cooperation of its two allies for security in the region.

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South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin and his counterpart Yoshimasa Hayashi at a meeting in Tokyo on Monday said they would seek an early resolution to the issue of compensation, statements from the two sides said. Koreans were conscripted to work in Japan’s factories and mines during its colonial rule over the peninsula from 1910-1945.

Park told Hayashi his government would seek a resolution before courts in South Korea sell off assets related to Japanese companies that have been seized for compensation, the statements said. Park, on the first official visit by a South Korean foreign minister to Tokyo in nearly five years, is scheduled to stay until Wednesday.

During a separate courtesy call Tuesday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida urged Park to do all possible to resolve the issues, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters. Park said South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol hopes to have a summit with the Japanese leader, Yonhap News Agency reported.

Yoon, a conservative who took office in May, has sought to improve ties with Japan. He has also backed a tougher stance on North Korea and China, in line with Tokyo -- helping the Biden administration as it tries to build a united front among America’s partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

Improved ties would potentially also be of economic benefit to South Korea, which was removed from Japan’s list of most trusted trading partners in 2019.

But Yoon has few good options to resolve the issue of compensation for the conscripted labor, which was a major concern for his progressive predecessor, President Moon Jae-in.

Japan sees the issue as “settled completely and finally” under a 1965 agreement that established diplomatic ties and had Tokyo pay compensation. A plan being floated by Yoon for a joint fund between the governments stands little chance of support in Japan, still angry after a fund for women trafficked into Japanese Imperial Army brothels was scuttled by Moon.

Yoon is unlikely to get money for a joint fund, or for South Korea to pay on its own, from a parliament where Moon’s Democratic Party holds a majority and has demanded Japan make what it sees as a proper contrition. Yoon, whose support rate has fallen to lows not reached seen for a newly elected president in the country, risks further alienating the South Korean public by moves seen as cozying up to long-time rival Japan.

“It appears that Yoon doesn’t have many groundbreaking options that can resolve this issue at one go,” Cheon Seong-whun, a former security strategy secretary for South Korea’s presidential office.

“The real problem here is whether Yoon can still proceed improving the bilateral relations despite his low approval rate,” Cheon said.

Meanwhile, cases have been grinding their way through South Korean courts, which have ruled since late 2018 that some conscripted workers were not properly compensated for their emotional pain and suffering. Assets related to two major Japanese companies Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. may be liquidated to pay compensation.

Japan has called those decisions unlawful and in violation of its agreements with South Korea.

Kishida was foreign minister when the two countries sealed what they said at the time was a “final and irreversible” deal in 2015 to compensate the women trafficked in front-line brothels. Yoon was unable to secure a one-on-one meeting with Kishida on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Madrid in June, though the two spoke briefly at a dinner hosted by King Felipe of Spain and came together at a trilateral meeting with Biden.

(Updates with call on prime minister in third paragraph.)

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