Japan Calls South Korea's Rejection of Arbitration Offer 'Very Regrettable’

Jay Yim, July 19, 2019, 9:25 a.m.

 Japan called in South Korea's ambassador to the country and filed a protest on Friday after Seoul rejected its call for an arbitration panel on wartime forced labor, with the escalating row showing signs of spreading to the security realm.

Thursday was the deadline Tokyo set for Seoul to respond to its June 19 request to form a panel consisting of three third-country members. Seoul rejected the demand, saying the issue should be resolved through diplomatic talks, rather than a dispute settlement process.

On Friday, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono summoned South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo and lodged a complaint, calling Seoul's rejection of Tokyo's demand for an arbitration panel "very regrettable."

"It is problematic that Seoul is leaving the situation of violating international law as it stands," he said during the meeting.

Kono later said in a statement that Japan "will devise necessary measures in light of the seriousness of the current bilateral state caused by Seoul."

He did not elaborate on what the necessary measures would be but his remark was seen as an indication that Tokyo could take further retaliatory steps against South Korea.

"We once again strongly urge the South Korean government to come up with concrete measures to correct the situation in which it has breached international law," he added. 

The row began after South Korea's Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms last year to compensate forced labor victims. Tokyo has strongly protested the rulings, arguing that all reparation issues were settled under a 1965 treaty the two countries signed when they normalized diplomatic relations.

In retaliation, Tokyo slapped export restrictions on the South early this month and warned that it could take additional retaliatory measures, such as removing South Korea from a so-called whitelist of countries given preferential treatment in trade procedures.

In response, Seoul maintained that it cannot accept Japan's call for an arbitration panel and urged Tokyo to cooperate in resolving the issue through diplomacy.

"We cannot accept the Japanese government's unilateral and arbitrary claim in relation to the procedure for dispute settlement and our judicial rulings, nor should we be bound by its request (for arbitration)," the foreign ministry said in a release.

"Japan needs to make efforts for a true solution, which would be to face the unfortunate history and to try to heal the pain and scars left on the victims."

The ministry said Seoul remains ready to talk with Tokyo for a "rational solution that satisfies the people and victims on both sides and is hoping that Tokyo withdraws the export curbs and return to the dialogue table."

South Korea has maintained that it cannot intervene in civil litigation, saying it honors court decisions under the democratic constitutional principle that guarantees the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial powers.

In an effort to address the dispute, Seoul proposed last month that South Korean and Japanese firms create a joint fund to compensate victims of forced labor. However, Tokyo immediately rejected the overture.

In Friday's meeting, Japan's foreign minister and the South Korean envoy exchanged testy remarks.

Kono claimed that what South Korea is doing amounts to "overturning the international order since World War II" and demanded Seoul take steps to correct the situation.

In response, Nam said he will convey what Kono said to the government in Seoul. But the envoy also said that Japan's "unilateral measures" are undermining the foundation of Korea-Japan relations, and that the two sides should try to resolve the issue through dialogue. 

Nam said that the forced labor issue is a civil matter between private individuals and that it is hard to prejudge its outcome. He stressed that the Korean government is doing everything it can to help close the litigation without hurting bilateral ties.

As the envoy recalled Seoul's recent proposal to compensate victims, Kono interrupted him and stressed that the proposal is completely unacceptable. Kono also accused Seoul of making the proposal, knowing that Japan is not going to accept it. He called Seoul's attitude "extremely rude."

To defuse tensions with Tokyo, Seoul has also been hoping that the United States will mediate between the two countries to find a dialogue-based solution or forestall an escalation of the increasingly rancorous dispute between the two U.S. allies.

David Stilwell, the new top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, said during his visit to Seoul on Wednesday that the South and Japan should resolve the issue on their own and that Washington will do "what it can" to help support their efforts.

On Thursday, President Moon Jae-in and the heads of five major political parties held a rare meeting and agreed on the need for bipartisan efforts to cope with Japan's use of trade as a means of retaliation over the historical issue.

But the dispute showed signs of spreading to security cooperation between the two countries.

On Thursday, South Korea's national security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, briefed party leaders attending the meeting with Moon that Seoul could review whether to renew a military information sharing pact with Japan, according to a lawmaker who attended the briefing.

In November 2016, Seoul and Tokyo signed the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The pact enables the two countries to share confidential military information so as to better cope with nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

The accord is supposed be automatically renewed every year unless either party notifies the other of its intention to terminate the agreement 90 days ahead of the end of a one-year period.

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