|Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha speaks during a press briefing at Government Complex Seoul, Thursday. Yonhap|
By Kim Rahn
Korea and Japan are still at loggerheads over reparations for wartime forced labor and Japan's restrictions on certain materials exported to Korean companies, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Thursday.
Her remarks indicated the soured relations between the two nations are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon; rather, the tension is likely to grow along with Korea's complaint filed with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against Japan over the export curbs.
"The gap between Korea and Japan is wide. Basically the biggest problem is Japan's export curbs that were implemented unfairly out of discontent with the Korean Supreme Court ruling on the forced labor issue," Kang said in a media briefing at the Government Complex in Seoul.
"We have a consistent position that the export restrictions should be withdrawn and the trade situation should be restored to the level before July 1 last year."
In an October 2018 ruling, Korea's top court ordered Japanese companies, which benefitted from the use of forced labor during World War II, to compensate Korean victims. In retaliation over the ruling, the Shinzo Abe administration imposed restrictions on the export of three key materials critical for Korea's chip and display industries, in July last year.
As the Japanese firms have refused to pay the compensation, Korean local courts are set to liquidate assets seized from them ― over which the Japanese government is warning of further economic retaliation.
"The stance between the two nations over the forced labor issue is very different from each other. The Korean government's main position is: the Supreme Court ruling should be respected and the victims' rights should be guaranteed while bilateral relations should, at the same time, be maintained," she said.
"We've been talking with Japan to narrow the gap, but the different is still big and the export curbs have not been lifted," Kang said, adding that's why Korea brought the issue to the WTO.
Another contentious issue between Korea and Japan is the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which Korea had planned to terminate, in August last year, following Japan's export restrictions. But in November, Korea temporarily suspended ending the agreement, with the hope of reconciliation. It has to notify Japan whether it will keep the GSOMIA, which is renewed annually, by Aug. 23.
"We suspended the termination of the GSOMIA under the premise that we still have the right to end it anytime we want to," Kang said. "The government will decide whether to continue the agreement after reviewing how the export restrictions and other issues develop."
Over the issue of former sex slaves, another conflicting issue with Japan, Kang reaffirmed that Korea would not seek a renegotiation with Japan. While the two nations announced a deal over compensation for the sexual slavery victims in 2015 under the former Park Geun-hye administration, the victims allegedly opposed it for not reflecting their opinion, and the current Moon Jae-in administration said in 2018 the deal could not solve the problem ― virtually nullifying it ― but added it would not seek renegotiations.
Kang said the so-called "comfort women" issue is about wartime sexual crimes against women. "What the victims want the most is a sincere apology, and such a thing cannot be attained through diplomatic negotiations," she said. "That's why we don't request a renegotiation, but we clearly say such an apology is a must."
The foreign minister also said that Korea and the United States have a wide gap over defense cost-sharing for the United States Forces Korea (USFK), adding it was hard to forecast when a deal would be made.
For this year's Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that decides on the share for each country, the Trump administration demanded Korea increase its share by nearly fivefold the amount of last year, while Korea is maintaining its proposal of a 13-percent rise.
"We've increased our share for a decade, and we were ready to increase it this time. But the amount of increase should be reasonable and fair," she said.
Kang added the U.S. side has not mentioned reducing the size of the USFK, dismissing speculation that Washington may use a reduction in American troops here as a bargaining chip in the SMA talks.