SEOUL -- South Korea will consider Japan's request for talks on a court decision ordering the seizure of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal assets to compensate former wartime laborers, but stressed that it will respect the ruling, underscoring the continued rift between the two sides.
The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Wednesday that it would "thoroughly examine" the request, but emphasized the government's basic position that it "respects the court rulings over victims of forced labor."
The Daegu District Court on Jan. 3 approved a petition filed on behalf of South Koreans forced to work at Nippon Steel during World War II, requesting the confiscation of South Korean assets held by the Japanese company.
Seoul will "devise measures in comprehensive consideration of the need to practically heal the pains and scars of the victims" and of South Korea-Japan relations, the ministry said.
Japan has protested the ruling, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga calling the asset seizure "extremely regrettable." Tokyo is considering appealing to the International Court of Justice.
Before the request for talks, Japanese cabinet members met to discuss the matter at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office. Suga told the ministers that the relevant ministries and agencies should respond in a coordinated manner.
The South Korean statement warned Tokyo against letting tensions between the two countries heighten further. "Causing unnecessary conflict and antagonism will never be helpful in resolving the issue," it said.
With President Moon Jae-in set to hold his New Year's news conference on Thursday, observers are waiting to see how he will address the matter.
Lawsuits like the one against Nippon Steel have resulted in payouts for only a handful of the roughly 220,000 people whom Seoul has officially recognized as "victims of forced labor."
"The Japanese and South Korean governments and the companies involved should set up a foundation to compensate the victims," Choi Bong-tae, a lawyer representing former laborers and their families, told Nikkei on Wednesday.
The biggest hurdle to Choi's vision is Japan's assertion that all such claims were settled "completely and finally" by a 1965 agreement when the two countries normalized diplomatic relations. Previous South Korean administrations took this stance as well.
Some in Seoul have proposed setting up such a fund without Tokyo's involvement, but Choi dismissed that idea, saying wartime labor was the result of the government and companies acting together. "The Japanese government should be held responsible," he said.
South Korea has set up a working group with representatives from the relevant ministries, led by South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, on a response to the issue. But a consensus will likely take time, given the victims' rejection of a fund that does not involve Tokyo.
Choi called the court's decision approving the seizure of Nippon Steel assets "unfortunate," as the plaintiffs had not wanted to resort to such a step. But the company "had the option of agreeing to a settlement," he said.