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Foreign Minister to meet with victims of Japan's forced labor

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin holds a joint press conference with his Mongolian counterpart, Batmunkh Battsetseg, after holding talks in Ulanbataar Monday. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin holds a joint press conference with his Mongolian counterpart, Batmunkh Battsetseg, after holding talks in Ulanbataar Monday. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin is expected to meet with the victims of wartime forced labor by Japanese companies, as the country’s top court delayed its ruling on liquidating the assets of the firms.

According to officials from the Foreign Ministry, Park is planning to meet with the Korean victims, who are currently waiting for the Supreme Court’s ruling that could start liquidation of the Japanese firms’ assets to provide compensation for them.

Park’s plan to hold a face-to-face meeting with the victims comes amid the government’s efforts to resolve the forced labor issue, a major source of dispute with Japan, without carrying out the liquidation.

The dispute goes back to 2018, when South Korea’s top court ruled in favor of the Korean victims to take the Japanese companies Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel liable for their wartime actions during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. The court ordered the firms to pay compensation to the victims.

But the Japanese companies refused to comply with the ruling, and the legal process carried on further, leading the court to seize the firms’ assets based in Korea.

As the Japanese government views that all reparation issues related to its colonization of Korea were settled under a 1965 treaty that South Korea signed to normalize relations with Japan, it has warned South Korea that the liquidation of the Japanese assets would be “crossing the red line” that would put the bilateral relations with Seoul down the drain.

The Supreme Court already delayed making a decision on the case once on Aug. 19 for further deliberation. But it may deliver the final ruling as early as Friday, as the chief Supreme Court justice in charge of the case is set to retire on Sunday.

The Foreign Ministry said it will also hold the fourth meeting of the government-private consultative group it launched in early July to collect opinions of experts and the victims. The date has not yet been designated, but it would likely be held before the Chuseok holiday, which falls on Sept. 10.

How the government would be able to secure support from the victims for its efforts to annul the court’s ruling that has yet been made, is in question, however.

Especially as after the Foreign Ministry delivered a written opinion to the Supreme Court explaining of its "diplomatic efforts" to resolve the issue last month -- an apparent attempt seeking for more time to explore options before the court makes a final decision -- the victims accused the government of taking the side of the "Japanese perpetrators."

The backlash against the ministry’s opinion also led the legal representatives of the victims to boycott the government-private consultative group meetings.

On Wednesday, the civic group supporting victims of wartime forced labor during the colonial period issued a press release to demand the Foreign Ministry to sincerely apologize and withdraw the written opinion.

"The Korean Foreign Ministry has turned its back on the victims standing on the edge of a cliff and submitted a written opinion that supports the claims of the war criminal Mitsubishi," the civic group said in the statement.

"The act itself is not only state violence (against the victims) but also diplomatic embarrassment showing that the ministry succumbed to Japan’s pressure."

By Jo He-rim (herim@heraldcorp.com)

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