South Korean President Moon Jae In said Monday that he views possible sales of Japanese companies' assets to compensate groups of South Koreans over wartime labor as "undesirable" for bilateral ties.
Moon's remarks come as plaintiffs who won damages suits against two Japanese companies in South Korea's Supreme Court in 2018 over forced labor during World War II are seeking asset sales through the country's courts.
Bilateral ties have sunk to the lowest point in decades following the rulings, and they could be further strained after a Seoul court earlier this month ordered the Japanese government to pay damages to former "comfort women."
The Japanese government, which takes the position that a 1965 bilateral agreement settled all claims related to its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, has criticized the rulings in both cases.
At Monday's New Year press conference in Seoul, Moon said he felt "a bit perplexed" by the Jan. 8 comfort women ruling as it came amid efforts between the two countries to solve other ongoing issues, such as export controls and compensation for wartime labor.
The president said he acknowledges that a deal struck by Seoul and Tokyo in 2015 to solve the issue of comfort women is an "official one between the governments" and that he will explore solutions based on the deal.
Moon also said that the priority is to find a diplomatic solution and that South Korea and Japan would seek to come up with one that is also satisfactory to the plaintiffs.
"The two governments will discuss a way that the plaintiffs can agree on, and the South Korean government will persuade them to the maximum extent. I believe that we can steadily solve the problem in that way," he said.
The term comfort women is a euphemism for women, many of whom were Korean, forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II.
The two countries struck the deal in 2015 to "finally and irreversibly" resolve the longstanding dispute. As part of the deal, the Japanese government paid 1 billion yen. The funds were distributed through a foundation to former comfort women and the families of those who died.
However, the Moon government dissolved the foundation in 2019 after concluding that the deal failed to properly reflect the women's wishes.
The Japanese government declined to be involved in the comfort women lawsuit, citing sovereign immunity under international law that allows a state to be shielded against the jurisdiction of foreign courts.
But the Seoul Central District Court, in its ruling, brushed aside the argument and determined that the Japanese government committed "intentional, systematic and wide-ranging criminal acts against humanity."
It was the first such ruling in South Korea. The ruling is expected to become final at the end of Jan. 22 as the Japanese government does not plan to appeal it.