SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of – Colonial-era Korean labourers are seeking a court’s approval for the sales of local assets of their former Japanese employer after it refused to comply with a court order to compensate them for forced labour decades ago.
The development comes amid growing tensions between South Korea and Japan. Tokyo recently tightened controls on high-tech exports to South Korea, a move Seoul believes is retaliation for the South Korean court rulings last year. Japan says it is not retaliation, has warned it might take further action if South Korea pushes harder on the issue.
Lawyers and supporters of the Koreans who worked for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries during Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of Korea said in a joint statement Tuesday they’ll soon ask a South Korean court to authorize the sales of some assets that South Korea has seized from Mitsubishi.
The assets are some of Mitsubishi’s trademark rights and patents.
If a court approves, Mitsubishi’s assets will be put up for auction to raise funds to pay the compensation in a process expected to take about six months, according to Kim Yeong Hwan, an activist with a group that signed the statement.
The lawyers and activists said they sent three requests to Mitsubishi to discuss the compensation but it hasn’t responded. Meanwhile the elderly plaintiffs are dying of old age.
An approval for selling the assets would likely fan antagonism between Seoul and Tokyo at a time when relations are already at their worst in decades.
Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Tuesday hinted Tokyo might retaliate.
“If Japanese companies are actually harmed, we will be forced to take necessary measures,” he told reporters, without giving details. “To prevent that, we urge the South Korean government to take appropriate actions.”
Tokyo has requested third-party arbitration of the Korean wartime labour dispute as stipulated in a 1965 treaty. The deadline for a response is Thursday, and Seoul has indicated that it will not respond.
South Korea has stepped up pressure on Japan to withdraw the newly imposed trade controls, which require approvals for all sales of certain materials used in many high-tech products.
South Korea plans to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization and raise the issue at next week’s WTO General Council in Geneva. Trade officials from the countries failed to resolve the dispute in a working-level meeting last week.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Monday the measure threatens to shatter economic co-operation between the neighbours and could damage Japan more than South Korea. He said Japan was abusing its leverage in trade to punish South Korea.
Japan says preferential export licensing arrangements for the three materials subject to its export control measure can only be allowed for trustworthy trading partners. Some Japanese ruling lawmakers have suggested U.N. sanctions may have been violated by transfers of sensitive materials from South Korea to North Korea. South Korean officials say such allegations are groundless and have proposed a U.N. investigation.
The Japanese trade minister, Hiroshige Seko, rejected Moon’s comments and said he did not expect Japanese companies to be harmed by the tighter export controls.
Seko reiterated Tuesday that Japan’s export curbs resulted from a review aimed at national security, to ensure implementation of export controls, and are not retaliation for South Korea’s handling of disputes over former Korean wartime labourers and other historical issues.
“I will make it clear that President Moon’s remark yesterday is completely off the mark,” Seko told reporters in Tokyo. “The Japanese measures by their nature do not require checks by international organizations.”
The Japanese side says it has been trying to discuss the issue with South Korea since 2016 and the failure to hold such meetings was a key reason behind Tokyo’s decision.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.