President Moon gets tough over diplomatic row with Japan

Lim Chang-won Reporter Posted : 2019-01-10 18:00 Updated : 2019-01-10 18:00
글씨작게 글씨크게

[Courtesy of the presidential Blue House]

SEOUL -- President Moon jae-in took a get-tough attitude over a diplomatic row with Japan over compensation to South Korean workers who were drafted for forced labor during Japan's colonial rule, accusing Japanese political leaders of politicizing historical issues.

Moon urged Japan to take political and legal issues separately. "It is not a wise attitude for Japanese political leaders to turn it into a political issue and escalate it. It is not desirable to go to a political offensive," he said in his New Year's press conference on Thursday, demanding Tokyo take "a slightly more humble position."

The two countries have been locked in a fresh row over a decision by South Korea's highest court in October last year that acknowledged individual rights to get compensation for wartime forced labor. The Supreme Court upheld a 2013 ruling that ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. (NSSM) to pay 100 million won ($89,445) each to four Korean victims.

The decision paved the way for a flurry of suits. Tens of thousands of Koreans were forced to work under harsh conditions for Japan, but many have died. Government data at the time showed that there were 6,570 survivors.

Japan has insisted colonial-era issues were settled in a 1965 agreement that restored diplomatic ties with the payment of $500 million. However, supreme court justices ruled that they cannot accept the Japanese court's ruling because it ran against South Korea's constitutional value and was based on the premise that forced labor during Japan's colonial rule was legitimate.

Japan called in South Korean Ambassador Lee Su-hoon to lodge a protest on Wednesday against a court decision to seize 81,075 shares worth about 400 million won of PNR, a joint venture between Nippon Steel and South Korean steelmaker POSCO.

Seoul and Tokyo must respect judicial decisions, Moon said, adding the South Korean government has repeatedly said that such issues should be addressed separately without hurling future-oriented relations. "This is not a problem created by the Korean government, but it was created because of the past unfortunate history."

In a TV program on Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed deep regret. "The government is taking this issue seriously," he said, adding he ordered related government authorities to review specific measures.

Ties between the two Asian neighbors have been in the doldrums for years, with South Korea insisting that Japan should apologize and make amends for abuses during its colonial rule. In particular, Seoul wants Tokyo to address the issue of women forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels. Japan claimed last month that a South Korean destroyer directed fire-control radar at its patrol aircraft in what it calls a "dangerous" act. South Korea insisted the warship was involved in a humanitarian mission to rescue a North Korean ship in distress.