Legacy of war in Asia

Japan weighs sanctions against South Korea as rift over wartime use of forced labour deepens

  • Lawyers representing South Koreans forced to work for Japan’s steel giant issued an ultimatum on Tuesday, threatening to freeze the companies assets if compensation was not discussed
  • The threat prompted indignation in Tokyo, where members of Shinzo Abe’s government have discussed recalling the ambassador to Seoul and the seizure of South Korean government assets in Japan
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2018, 3:49pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 December, 2018, 9:48pm

The Japanese government is weighing sanctions against South Korea after the row over wartime forced labour escalated, further reopening old wounds stemming from the period of Tokyo’s colonial rule.

Lawyers representing South Koreans forced to work for Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal told a press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday they have set the company a deadline of 5pm on December 24 to respond to their request to discuss compensation.

If the company does not respond to the ultimatum, they said, the lawyers will apply to courts in South Korea to freeze part of its assets there. Nippon Steel holds about 2.34 million shares in PNR, a joint venture with South Korean steelmaker Posco, lawyer Lim Jae-sung said.

Nippon Steel released a statement saying it maintains the issue has been settled and it is in consultations with the government on the legal challenge, while Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary, said the government will “respond appropriately”.

Sources have told the South China Morning Post, however, that behind the diplomatic facade, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is “absolutely indignant” and a meeting of members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Tuesday evening became “extremely heated”.

“Many of the politicians there were very angry and there were calls for the Japanese ambassador to Seoul to be recalled,” one source said. “It was mentioned that the government is already considering sanctions against South Korea, although it has stopped short of announcing that they are being planned.”

Such sanctions might include the reintroduction of visas for South Korean travellers, restrictions imposed on diplomats and the seizure of South Korean government assets in Japan that would be used to compensate any Japanese firms for assets used in South Korea to compensate forced labourers.

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This is a terrible decision and a clear challenge to the international legal order
Ken Kato, LDP member

“This is a terrible decision and a clear challenge to the international legal order,” said Ken Kato, a businessman who is also a member of the LDP. “Decisions need to be based on the rule of law and the South Korean courts have clearly broken those laws by ignoring the treaty that was signed in 1965, and that could have international ramifications.

“If no one respects international agreements, then the entire global legal system is in danger if one side suddenly decides it does not agree with a treaty that was signed in the past. Something like this can only serve to reignite old conflicts.”

Kato said many Japanese companies were already drawing up contingency plans in case their assets were targeted by South Korean courts, while other foreign firms will “inevitably” be reluctant to expose themselves to risk by doing business in Korea or with Korean partners.

It has also been suggested Japan will take the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for mediation, although Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University, believes that might be a mistake.

“It has been reported that Abe is thinking of taking the matter to the ICJ, but I think that may be a bad tactic because the case will be heard by a panel of 15 judges that includes Chinese and Russian judges and we can assume that they will side with South Korea whatever evidence is presented to the court,” he said.

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He admitted, however, that the time for the Abe administration to act is coming closer.

“Until recently, the government took the position that it was an internal issue for South Korea to solve, but the failure of Moon to explain to the courts that the matter was settled by the 1965 treaty has made Abe indignant,” he said.

Shimada said many of his South Korean business contacts were “very worried” about the potential economic chaos Japanese sanctions or the withdrawal of Japanese firms from the South could inflict on the nation’s economy.

Relations between the two nations have been fraught for many years over differing interpretations of history but there has been a growing sense of open hostility in recent months. That anger has been fanned by the dispute over a scheme to compensate former “comfort women”, which the South Korean government scrapped in November, and the recent rulings by the Supreme Court that stated former forced labourers could sue Japanese firms for their work during the years of Japan’s colonial occupation.

Tokyo insists that all claims and compensation were settled under the 1965 treaty that normalised relations after the war.