South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin met with Korean plaintiffs in Japanese wartime labor cases on Friday as the government of President Yoon Seok Yeol works to solve the issue before it inflames tensions with Tokyo.
There is speculation that the South Korean Supreme Court may soon finalize a court order to liquidate assets seized from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., one of two Japanese firms the top court had found liable for forced labor during World War II.
Park visited the man and woman in Gwangju in the country's southwest. Both are in their 90s, and neither has received compensation despite being awarded damages.
After his conversations with them, the minister told reporters that he would try his best to solve the issue as soon as possible and with sincerity based on Friday's meetings.
"We will convey to Japan what we heard from the victims as it is," Park added.
The minister also said South Korea and Japan will try to speed up efforts to settle the issue in a future-oriented manner, but that only if Japan faces its history squarely, apologizes and reflects on it can the two countries open up a new era where they can cooperate as partners.
Ties between South Korea and Japan have deteriorated sharply since the top court's 2018 decision ordering Mitsubishi Heavy and Nippon Steel Corp. to pay damages to South Korean plaintiffs over forced labor during the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
But the companies did not comply with the compensation order as the Japanese government has taken the position that the issue of claims between the two countries, including compensation for wartime laborers, was "settled completely and finally" under a 1965 bilateral agreement under which Japan provided South Korea with grants and loans in the name of economic cooperation.
The plaintiffs, in turn, asked courts to seize part of the companies' assets in South Korea, including some trademarks and patents owned by Mitsubishi Heavy, to be sold off, and the courts have approved their requests.
The Japanese government has warned of serious consequences for the bilateral relationship should the assets be liquidated.
Yoon, who took office in May, has shown a strong willingness to improve relations with Japan and is seeking an alternative solution to liquidating the assets, but the plaintiffs' side does not embrace the move.
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