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International relations

Moon tells Japanese lawmakers wartime labor issue will take time

Seoul defends judicial authority and promises to explore solution

South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Japanese lawmakers in Seoul on Dec. 14 that his government must respect rulings by the country's Supreme Court.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in told Japanese lawmakers Friday that resolving the dispute over a Supreme Court ruling on wartime laborers will take time, revealing a wide gulf with the Tokyo side seeking swift action by Seoul.

Members of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians' Union, led by former Finance Minister Fukushiro Nukaga, met with Moon in Seoul. Nukaga urged the president to "take appropriate measures in line with the 1965 treaty" that restored bilateral relations. Japan believes the treaty resolved all matters pertaining to wartime reparations.

"We have a strict separation of powers, just like in Japan, and the government has no choice but to respect the rulings," Moon responded, promising to search for a solution with relevant agencies and experts.

South Korea's Supreme Court has upheld wartime workers' compensation claims against Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The rulings, issued in October and November, have deepened a political rift between Seoul and Tokyo.

Moon also explained his decision to close a foundation created to assist wartime "comfort women" under a 2015 agreement with Japan on the issue, the South Korean government said.

"The foundation has not been operational for a long time, but has required operational and maintenance costs all the same," Moon said. "This is why I disbanded it."

The parliamentarians' union met with its South Korean counterpart that day. The two groups issued a statement saying that Tokyo asked Seoul to take appropriate actions in line with international law.

But the event only highlighted the bilateral rift. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not send his customary message, while Kang Chang-il, who heads the counterpart Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union, urged Japan to respect the South's judicial decisions.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, whom Moon tasked with the labor reparations issue, approached Japanese lawmaker Wataru Takeshita before leaving the event. Lee told his old acquaintance that a solution will take some time.

The South Korean government initially was expected to provide its response to the Supreme Court rulings by the end of the year, but some now see this announcement occurring next year.

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