Japan urged South Korea on Wednesday to launch talks based on their key diplomatic agreement for the first time as a Japanese steelmaker faces an imminent seizure of its assets in connection with the issue of wartime labor.
Amid escalating bilateral tensions, the Japanese government made the request after confirming that Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. has been notified by a South Korean district court of the seizure.
The district court said Tuesday it has approved a request to impound some of the company's assets in South Korea as it has refused to comply with an earlier court order to pay compensation to four South Koreans who were recognized as having been forced into labor during Japan's 1910 to 1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
With the launch of negotiations, the government hopes to make sure Japanese firms are treated fairly. But the likelihood of Seoul accepting the request to begin talks on the issue with Tokyo in the near future seems slim.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry, in a brief statement, said Wednesday the country's position of respecting the Supreme Court's decision in October remains unchanged.
The ministry said South Korea intends to come up with measures that will help victims of forced labor recover from their past hurtful experiences, while taking into consideration future-oriented ties with Japan.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs requested in late December that the Daegu District Court's branch office in the southeastern city of Pohang seize the Japanese firm's shares in a joint venture with South Korean steelmaker POSCO.
The Japanese steel giant owns a 30 percent stake, or about 2.34 million shares, in POSCO-Nippon Steel RHF Joint Venture, and some 81,000 shares, worth about 200 million won ($178,000) -- which is on par with the amount of compensation ordered by the South Korean top court for two plaintiffs -- are subject to the seizure.
The request to launch talks on the top court's ruling and ensuing developments was made by Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba to South Korea's ambassador to Japan, Lee Su Hoon.
Japan's top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga described the South Korean court's approval of the seizure as "extremely regrettable" and said Tokyo "has taken the matter seriously."
"The South Korean government has yet to take concrete steps despite Japan's request to address the situation, which violates international law," said Suga, the chief Cabinet secretary.
Also expressing strong regret in a statement, Nippon Steel said it will "consult with the Japanese government and take appropriate responses."
Tokyo maintains that the issue of compensation was settled "completely and finally" under an agreement to settle property claims signed alongside the 1965 Japan-South Korea basic relations treaty that established diplomatic ties.
Japan has said the South Korean rulings are "in breach of international law."
Suga, who chaired a meeting of ministers, told government agencies to "closely cooperate with each other" in dealing with the South Korean court's approval of the seizure, according to land minister Keiichi Ishii.
The bilateral agreement on settling property claims stipulates that any dispute regarding its interpretation and implementation shall be resolved, first of all, through diplomatic channels.
The talks, if realized, would be the first of their kind to be based on the pact, according to Japanese officials.
But it remains uncertain whether the South Korean government will accept the request. In 2011, Tokyo did not respond to a call by Seoul with regard to the issue of so-called comfort women, who were forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels, another sticking point between the two countries.
If the envisioned talks fall apart, Japan may seek to establish an arbitration panel, which is also stated in the accord, or eventually take the issue to the International Court of Justice.
Bilateral ties between the two Asian neighbors have rapidly deteriorated since the South Korean top court handed down the compensation order in late October.
Another similar ruling the following month ordered Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to compensate two groups of South Koreans for similar reasons.