South Korea’s Moon calls for ‘restrained’ language with Japan over wartime forced labor row

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in told Japanese lawmakers on Friday “cautious, restrained language” is needed when discussing wartime forced labor to avoid “inciting antagonistic emotions” between the people of the two East Asian countries.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in speaks during a meeting with senior aides at the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, December 12, 2018. Presidential Blue House/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

A row between Seoul and Tokyo flared again in late October when South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp must pay four South Koreans 100 million won ($87,700) in compensation for their forced labor during World War Two.

Japan denounced the ruling, which said the workers’ right to reparation was not terminated by a 1965 treaty, as “unthinkable”. The verdict strained relations and could affect bilateral efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, analysts say.

Moon said the South Korean government would take its time to seek a solution because the issue was triggered by a judicial ruling and must be respected by the government.

“Hurting the amicable sentiment between the two countries does not help the progress of the future relationship between South Korea and Japan,” Moon said on Friday.

Japanese leaders reacted angrily to the verdict, and subsequent similar rulings against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the matter had been “completely and finally” settled by the 1965 treaty.

Moon also addressed another contentious bilateral issue after Seoul disbanded last month a fund meant to settle compensation for South Korean women forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War Two.

Under a 2015 deal, Japan apologized to the “comfort women” – Japan’s euphemism for women, many of them Korean, forced to work in its wartime brothels – and provided a 1 billion yen ($9.4 million) fund to help them.

South Korea said last month it would discuss with Tokyo what to do with the balance of the fund, which at the end of October stood at 16.08 billion won ($14.21 million), including Seoul’s contributions.

“The fund was disbanded because it did not have any activity but just incurred operation and management costs,” Moon said on Friday. “I hope that South Korea and Japan can discuss how to utilize the balance of the fund and 1 billion yen in a way that fits the original purpose.”

Moon met Japanese officials in Seoul on Friday during an annual gathering of lawmakers from both countries, the South Korean presidential office said.

Reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Paul Tait

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