South Korea will look prudently into Japan's request for the formation of an arbitration panel involving a third-country member to address the long-simmering issue of Tokyo's wartime forced labor, Seoul's foreign ministry said Monday.
Earlier in the day, the ministry received a formal request for the panel's establishment. Tokyo bases it on dispute settlement procedures laid out in a 1965 state-to-state accord that normalized bilateral ties after Japan's 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula.
"The government will prudently look into it, factoring in all related elements concerning the move by the Japanese side," the ministry said in a text message sent to reporters.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono (far left) and his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung Wha hold talks in Davos, Switzerland, on January 23. (Kyodo)
Tensions have run high between the neighbors as Japan has protested South Korean Supreme Court rulings last year that ordered Japanese firms to compensate South Korean victims of forced labor.
Tokyo argues that all colonial-era reparation issues were settled under the 1965 deal.
The Japanese firms have not complied with the court orders, prompting the victims to take legal steps to seize or liquidate the companies' assets based in Korea, and Japan to warn of "countermeasures" to protect the companies.
The 1965 accord stipulates that the two sides are to settle any dispute related to the accord primarily through diplomatic channels. If they fail to settle it, the case can then be referred to a commission involving a third-country arbitrator agreed on by the two sides.
In January, Tokyo called for bilateral diplomatic talks with Seoul.
Seoul has remained unresponsive to the call while maintaining that a government cannot meddle in a court decision under a democratic system that separates three powers -- the executive, legislature and judiciary.
Seoul and Tokyo are currently coordinating over possible talks between Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and her Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, on the sidelines of a ministerial gathering of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development slated to be held in Paris on Wednesday and Thursday.
Observers said Seoul is unlikely to accept the request, given its reluctance to weigh in on issues of civil litigation involving private citizens. They also said Japan appears to be trying to build its case that it has been taking due diplomatic steps to settle the historical dispute, so as to shape international opinion in its favor.
They also noted that Tokyo's move underscores its apparent hope to put to rest the unpalatable issue, which, if not handled properly, could undermine its post-war settlements with countries affected by its past imperialism. (Yonhap)