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International relations

South Korean diplomat counts on Abe-Moon talks to ease frictions

Vice foreign minister says Seoul 'considering' response to wartime labor cases

South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyun said a summit with Japan would be "possible" if President Moon Jae-in attends the Group of 20 summit to be hosted by Japan. (Photo by Penta Press for Nikkei)

SEOUL -- A South Korean vice foreign minister expressed hope for a swift meeting between President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to bring down simmering tensions over a court ruling ordering compensation for former wartime laborers.

Moon could visit Japan this June in conjunction with the Group of 20 summit in Osaka. "It hasn't been decided yet" whether he will make the trip, but "President Moon has attended [G-20 events] in the past and will probably go this time as well," First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Hyun told Nikkei on Thursday.

"If so, then a meeting would be possible," Cho said.

This would mark the first real bilateral summit since September 2018. Since the South Korean Supreme Court ruled in October that Nippon Steel must compensate Koreans forced to work for a predecessor of the company during World War II, Moon and Abe have spoken in person only briefly on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference summit in November.

"As a working-level negotiator, I have hope that the leaders will be able to resolve even difficult problems between themselves," Cho said.

Japan maintains that all claims to compensation for wartime laborers were settled "completely and finally" under a 1965 agreement and that the Nippon Steel ruling and similar cases thus violate international law.

Moon said in his New Year's news conference that Seoul must respect the rulings in light of South Korea's separation of powers among the executive, judicial and legislative branches, and Japan should understand that.

Tokyo requested in January to hold talks on the Nippon Steel case based on the 1965 accord. Cho said that the government is "considering" its response, adding that "we're not saying it's not necessary."

He noted that Seoul is asking for Takeo Akiba, Japan's vice minister for foreign affairs, to come to South Korea to discuss the matter.

"It is difficult" to provide any specifics about the timing or what would be done, as this is a "highly sensitive issue," Cho said.

"We cannot ignore the rights or the arguments of the victims," he said.

The Japanese side is particularly frustrated over what it sees as Seoul's inaction in light of Korean plaintiffs' attempts to seize South Korean assets held by Japanese defendants. To this, Cho said Seoul is not "neglecting to address or even tacitly allowing the seizure."

The government is "carefully considering a variety of options from different angles," he said.

Cho also touched on the issue of wartime "comfort women." A 2015 agreement intended to settle the matter "finally and irreversibly" has unraveled under Moon, with the South Korean government deciding late last year to dissolve a Japanese-funded foundation established as part of the deal.

Seoul "has no intention whatsoever of making further demands of the Japanese government," Cho said.

But he also said that while the government of Moon's conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye prioritized money when negotiating the agreement, "the victims and the South Korean public had a completely different idea and could not accept" the deal.

Cho said he is "not pessimistic" about the bilateral relationship, noting "positive, future-oriented elements" such as cultural exchanges between young people. He indicated that Seoul plans to encourage young South Koreans to work in Japan.

"Both sides must make an effort not to make comments that could inflame public sentiment," he said.

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