As of Tuesday, it became possible for Seoul to take steps to cash in a Japanese firm’s seized assets here to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula.
In October 2018, South Korea’s top court made a ruling that ordered Japanese steelmaker Nippon Steel, previously known as Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal, to pay 100 million won ($83,840) each to four plaintiffs who had been forced to work at its plants and mines in the colonial period.
The forced labor victims subsequently filed a suit to seize local assets of the company and a lower court here accepted their request early last year.
In June, the court decided to put on public notice the seizure order after officials were repeatedly unable to deliver related documents to the company due to Tokyo’s refusal to cooperate with the delivery.
With the end of the notice period, the court order can be considered to have been delivered to the defendant firm and the seizure will be fixed unless it makes an appeal within seven days.
Japan Steel’s seized assets are shares worth 973 million won of a joint venture it has set up with Korean steelmaker Posco.
Cashing them in could run the risk of irrevocably damaging Seoul-Tokyo ties, which have been strained over the forced labor issue in recent years.
Tokyo has warned that the move would prompt it to take retaliatory measures, which observers say could include toughening requirements for visa issuance to Koreans, recalling the Japanese envoy to Seoul and imposing additional tariffs on imports from Korea.
Seoul officials say they are preparing countermeasures to deal with various scenarios, keeping in mind the possibility of relations with Tokyo plummeting to the worst level.
In what appeared to be a political reprisal for the 2018 ruling by the top court here, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration last year imposed curbs on the export of high-tech materials to Korea, later dropping the country from the list of Japan’s preferential trading partners.
In response, Seoul filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization over Tokyo’s restrictive moves and vowed not to renew a bilateral accord on military information sharing before shelving the pledge at the last minute while leaving the possibility of scrapping it still open.
The effectuation of the seizure order will not immediately lead to the payment of compensation to the victims. A separate court order to sell off the seized assets is needed to cash them in. It will take a few more months to complete the process of formalizing the order.
What is worrying is that the incumbent governments in Seoul and Tokyo appear ready to allow the discord over the forced labor issue to continue intensifying for their own domestic political gains.
Japan has argued that all matters regarding colonial era-related reparations were settled by a 1965 treaty that normalized its relations with South Korea.
The 2018 ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court, however, judged that the treaty could not prevent individual victims from seeking compensation for being forced to work for Japanese companies.
President Moon Jae-in’s government has done little to ease the conflict with Tokyo following the ruling, saying the court judgment should be respected. With the next presidential election less than two years from now, it is unlikely to change the position and may raise anti-Japanese rhetoric in a bid to rally voter support.
Abe’s administration seems more than ready to use Seoul’s move to cash in the seized assets to take a harder stance on South Korea, which it might hope would help bolster its plummeting approval rating.
The forced labor issue should not be allowed to further strain ties between South Korea and Japan at a time when the two neighboring countries need closer cooperation in coping with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and securing regional stability.
Politicians and intellectuals from both sides could meet to discuss possible solutions and recommend them to the governments in Seoul and Tokyo.
In a more direct approach, Japanese companies involved in forced labor during the colonial era and Korean victims are advised to seek a settlement between themselves.
The wider public in South Korea and Japan should now recognize that it is time to exert efforts at various levels to put bilateral ties back on track without leaving the settlement of disputes solely to government officials.