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International relations

Japan's Kono presses South Korean minister to stop asset seizure

Tensions high over wartime labor ruling as Tokyo lawmakers call for ambassador recall

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha met in Munich on Feb. 15.   © Kyodo

MUNICH -- Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha made little progress toward a diplomatic thaw at a meeting here Friday amid tensions over historical grievances that have prompted concern from shared ally the U.S.

Japanese government sources said Kono expressed concern to Kang over a move to liquidate assets seized from Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal after a South Korean court ruling that it was responsible for compensating Korean forced to work during World War II.

Kono urged Seoul to decide on a response soon, adding that Tokyo will have to act once the asset sale moves forward, according to the sources.

Ahead of the ministers' meeting, which followed talks last month in Davos, a lawyer for the South Korean plaintiffs in the case said the liquidation process would begin soon.

Members of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party are pushing to recall the ambassador to the South and restricting defense-related exports to the country should plaintiffs from the Nippon Steel case go ahead with liquidation proceedings.

"This is a very difficult situation, but we hope to have a frank discussion," Kono said in opening remarks. Kang echoed the importance of candid communication through diplomatic channels.

Japan asked South Korea in early January for bilateral talks under a 1965 agreement that Tokyo maintains settled the wartime labor issue. Asked again on Tuesday, the South said only that it is considering the option. Kang did not provide a clear answer at the meeting.

Concern is spreading even in the U.S., where a bipartisan group of lawmakers has offered legislation stressing the importance of three-way cooperation with Japan and South Korea.

Another issue is South Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang's recent call for Japan's Emperor Akihito to apologize to former wartime "comfort women." Tokyo has since lodged complaints five times through diplomatic channels. Kono reiterated the Japanese position that the remarks were inappropriate, but Kang did not comment.

Still, the two countries agreed to continue cooperating with Washington on North Korea. There is talk of a three-way foreign ministers' meeting after the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un later this month, though the tensions between Tokyo and Seoul could stand in the way.

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