The top diplomats of South Korea and Japan were set to hold bilateral talks on the sidelines of an international meeting in Paris on Thursday amid rising tensions over Tokyo's wartime forced labor, Seoul's foreign ministry said.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha will meet her Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, on the margins of the Ministerial Council Meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in the French capital.
Bilateral ties have chilled in recent months as Japan has challenged South Korean Supreme Court rulings last year that ordered Japanese firms to compensate South Korean victims of forced labor during its 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula.
The top court has recognized victims' rights to claim damages, but Tokyo maintains that all reparation issues stemming from its colonial rule were settled under a 1965 government-to-government accord that normalized bilateral relations.
Tensions flared anew on Monday as Japan requested the formation of an arbitration panel involving a third-country member to address the forced labor issue based on dispute settlement procedures enshrined in the normalization accord.
In January, Tokyo called for bilateral diplomatic talks over the issue also based on the accord. But Seoul has remained unresponsive, refusing to weigh in on civil litigation involving private citizens and Japanese firms.
The 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 an arbitration panel involving a third-country member agreed on by the two sides.
Should the arbitration panel fail to hammer out a solution, Japan could bring the case to the International Court of Justice.
Analysts said that Japan appears to be seeking to shape international opinion in its favor by taking such covert diplomatic actions that highlight that it has been taking due steps to tackle the long-simmering issue.
Some also argue that Japan's move underscores its growing angst about the court rulings here that could undermine its post-war settlements with other countries affected by its past imperialism.
Seoul has so far been taking a cautious approach, saying that it honors judicial decisions and that it cannot step in with legal disputes between private citizens and foreign firms still in progress.
Japanese firms have failed to comply with the compensation orders, prompting the victims to take legal steps to seize or liquidate their assets based in South Korea.
On Thursday, a South Korean newspaper reported that an official from the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae contacted a legal representative of the victims last week, triggering speculation that the Seoul government is moving to find a solution that would help avoid further aggravating diplomatic tensions.
Some experts here proposed creating a foundation for the victims with the funds, including those from Japanese firms in question as well as South Korean enterprises that benefited from the normalization accord.
Seoul's foreign ministry, meanwhile, said that there would be "no problem at all" if Japanese firms comply with the court's orders, in reference to Kono's recent call for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to "responsibly" address the forced labor issue.
"The government has been dealing with the issue under the basic principle of respecting the court rulings and in consideration of the need to heal the scars of the victims and establish a future-oriented partnership with Japan," ministry spokesman Kim In-chul told a regular press briefing.
The forced labor issue aside, Kang and Kono could discuss the possibility of a summit between President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit slated to take place in Osaka, Japan, on June 28-29.
Kono could also appeal for Seoul to lift or ease its import restrictions on Japanese seafood imposed in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
Kang and Kono last held bilateral talks on the sidelines of a security forum in Germany in February. (Yonhap)