|Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono speaks to journalists following his meeting with Korea's Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-pyo at the foreign ministry in Tokyo, July 19. AFP|
Japan's foreign minister said Tokyo will take "necessary measures" against South Korea if interests of Japanese companies are harmed in an escalating trade dispute triggered by a controversial ruling on forced labor suffered by Koreans.
The neighboring countries and U.S. allies are quarreling over South Korean Supreme Court decisions ordering Japanese companies to compensate victims forced to work for them during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the peninsula.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Friday after summoning South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo that Tokyo was prepared to take "necessary measures" to protect the interests of Japanese companies, without giving details.
Their talks were held in an icy atmosphere, briefly turning confrontational.
"It is extremely problematic that South Korea is one-sidedly leaving alone a situation that violates international law, which is the foundation of our bilateral relationship," Kono told Nam. "The action being taken by the South Korean government is something that completely overturns the order of the international community since the end of World War II."
Kono urged Seoul to immediately take action to stop the court process, under which the plaintiffs of the lawsuit are preparing to seize assets of the Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industry.
Nam defended his government and mentioned Seoul's proposal of creating a joint fund as a way to settle the dispute. Kono raised his voice, saying Tokyo had already rejected the idea. He also criticized the ambassador for being "rude" to suggest it again.
Japan is arguing that all compensation issues were settled under a 1965 bilateral agreement which established diplomatic relations between the two countries, and that the South Korean government's lack of intervention to stop the court process was a breach of the international treaty.
Tokyo is considering taking the issue to the International Court of Justice, although some officials say South Korea is expected to refuse to accept this. Tokyo may seek damages from South Korea if assets of Japanese companies are seized, local media there reported.
Responding to Kono's remark, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying Japan still hasn't done enough to make amends for the sufferings South Koreans underwent during the colonial past and that it should discuss ways to find solutions acceptable to both sides.
"To genuinely resolve the problem, Japan must look straight into the unfortunate past and make efforts to heal the pain and scars of the victims," the ministry said. "We hope that the Japanese government will withdraw its unilateral pressure including the export restrictions that are of a retaliatory character and return to the stage of diplomatic resolutions."
Seoul has protested Japan's tightened controls on sensitive high-tech exports to South Korea that could affect manufacturers here as well as global supplies of smartphones and displays.
In Washington, President Donald Trump said Friday he had been approached by President Moon Jae-in, asking if he could help with the dispute.
"If they need me, I'm there. Hopefully they can work it out. But they do have tension, there's no question about it," he said, adding, "It's a full-time job getting involved between Japan and South Korea."
The trade dispute adds to their already strained relations.
In Seoul, a 78-year-old South Korean man died hours after setting himself ablaze near the Japanese Embassy, Friday, according to police.
Officers said the man had phoned an acquaintance earlier to say he planned to self-immolate to express his anger toward Japan. Kim's family told investigators that their father-in-law had been conscripted as a forced laborer during the occupation.
Seoul has accused Tokyo of weaponizing trade to retaliate against the court rulings and plans to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization.
Tokyo said the export control issue had nothing to do with historical disputes, adding that the materials in question could only be sent to "trustworthy" trading partners. Without presenting specific examples, it has questioned Seoul's credibility in controlling the export of arms and dual-use items that can be used for civilian and military purposes.
South Korea has proposed an inquiry by the U.N. Security Council or another international body on the export controls of both countries. (AP)