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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on June 6)

All News 09:20 June 06, 2020

Avoid diplomatic debacle
Korea, Japan should find compromise over wartime forced labor

South Korea and Japan are showing signs of reigniting their diplomatic row over the latter's wartime forced labor. If they fail to find a compromise, the two countries may risk aggravating their already-sourced relations further.

The dispute is turning for the worse as a South Korean court has decided to start a legal procedure to liquidate seized assets of a Japanese firm that has refused to honor a ruling to compensate surviving South Korean victims of wartime forced labor.

On Monday, the court took action for "delivery of public notice" as the defendant, Nippon Steel, has refused to accept the court's legal document on asset liquidation. If the company does not respond to the document by Aug. 8, the court can issue an order to sell off the seized assets.

The legal step came after the Supreme Court of South Korea ordered Nippon Steel in 2018 to pay compensation to four South Koreans for their unpaid wartime forced labor. As the company refused to comply with the order, the plaintiffs applied for the seizure of the steelmaker's 194,794 shares worth 973 million won (US$799,400) in PNR, a joint venture created by Nippon Steel and Korean steelmaker POSCO.

The victims have no other choice but to resort to the court's imminent order to dispose of the shares as long as the Japanese firm continues to ignore the compensation ruling. If such a thing happens, the relations between Seoul and Tokyo could plunge to the lowest point since the 1965 diplomatic normalization.

More worrisome is that the nationalist Shinzo Abe government is threatening to retaliate against the looming sell-off order from the Korean court. Both sides have failed to narrow their wide differences over the forced labor issue since the Supreme Court ruled against the company.

In July 2019, Tokyo took a retaliatory action against Seoul by restricting exports of key materials essential for South Korean firms to make semiconductors and display panels. Soon in August that year, Japan also removed Korea from its list of favored trading partners, citing security reasons. The bilateral ties suddenly soured as Seoul made a tit-for-tat response to Tokyo's trade retaliations.

On Tuesday, Seoul decided to resume its process of taking the trade dispute to the World Trade Organization (WTO) as Tokyo has done nothing to lift its export restrictions against Korean firms. It is regrettable that the Moon Jae-in administration has made the decision only because of Japan's uncompromising stance.

Now we call on Tokyo to make sincere efforts to ease, if not lift, its trade restrictions in order to defuse tensions with Seoul. It is wrong to weaponize trade in retaliation against the Korean court's decision on the wartime forced labor issue.

"An eye for an eye" cannot resolve the history-related dispute between the two countries. Fundamentally, Japan needs to reflect on its 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea and the atrocities and brutalities it committed against Koreans.

Finally we urge both Seoul and Tokyo to compromise over the thorny issues related to the fraught history. They should work together -- not fight each other -- to overcome the shameful history and move forward toward reconciliation, friendship and co-prosperity.

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