FILE - In this July 19, 2019, file photo, Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono, left, meets with South Korean Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan Pyo, front right, at foreign ministry in Tokyo. Japanese officials say they are pursuing procedures to downgrade South Korea’s preferred nation status as Tokyo expands export controls over sensitive materials. Japanese media reported Friday, July 26, that on Aug. 2 the Cabinet will approve a plan to drop South Korea from a list of 27 countries granted preferential trade status.(Masanobu Kumagai/Kyodo News via AP, File)

Japan summons SKorean envoy to protest wartime labor dispute

July 19, 2019 - 2:39 am

TOKYO (AP) — Japan's foreign minister on Friday summoned South Korea's ambassador and accused Seoul of violating international law by refusing to join in an arbitration panel to settle a dispute over World War II forced labor.

South Korea had until midnight Thursday to respond to Japan's request for a three-nation panel. The neighboring countries are quarreling over South Korean court decisions ordering Japanese companies to compensate victims of forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono said after summoning Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo that Japan will "take necessary measures" against South Korea if interests of Japanese companies are harmed, 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 the situation that violates the 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 the 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 says all compensation issues had been settled under the 1965 bilateral agreement and that the South Korean government's lack of intervention to stop the court process is 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 going to court. Tokyo may seek damages from South Korea in case assets of Japanese companies are seized, Japanese media have reported.

At the same time, Seoul is protesting Japan's tightened controls on sensitive high-tech exports to South Korea that could affect South Korean manufacturers as well as global supplies of smartphones and displays.

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 on Friday, police said.

Police said the man had phoned an acquaintance earlier to say he planned to self-immolate to express his antipathy toward Japan. Kim's family told investigators that his father-in-law had been conscripted as a forced laborer during the Japanese occupation.

Seoul has accused Tokyo of weaponizing trade to retaliate against South Korean court rulings calling for Japanese companies to compensate aging South Korean plaintiffs for forced labor during World War II, and plans to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization.

Tokyo said the issue has nothing to do with historical dispute between the countries and says privileged licensing for the materials affected by the export controls can be sent only to trustworthy trading partners. Without presenting specific examples, it has questioned Seoul's credibility in controlling the exports of arms and 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.

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Follow Mari Yamaguchi on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/mariyamaguchi

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