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Japan vows fresh measures against South Korea as tensions rise

By ISABEL REYNOLDS | Bloomberg | Published: July 19, 2019

Japan's foreign minister pledged "necessary measures" against South Korea in a dispute over compensation for colonial-era forced labor that has raised tensions between the neighbors and spilled into trade relations.

Taro Kono, in a statement released Friday by the foreign ministry, didn't elaborate on what the actions would be. His comments came the day after a deadline set by Tokyo for Seoul to name an arbitrator for the dispute. Japan earlier this month placed export restrictions on specialized materials vital for South Korea's tech industry.

Kono said recent South Korean court rulings holding Japanese companies liable to compensate Koreans who worked at colonial-era mines and factories violated a 1965 treaty forming the basis for their relations, which spells out an arbitration process for disputes that aren't settled diplomatically.

"Above all, the decisions completely overthrow the legal foundation of the friendly and cooperative relationship that Japan and the Republic of Korea have developed since the normalization of diplomatic relations," he said.

Kono also urged South Korea to remedy the situation immediately, and summoned the country's Tokyo-based ambassador in order to make a formal protest. A few hours after Kono's comments, South Korea fired back and charged Japan with acting improperly.

An official at President Moon Jae-in's office denied that South Korea had violated international law, saying that the 1965 treaty didn't cover human rights issues. Kim Hyun-chong, a deputy national security adviser, accused Japan of breaking international law with export restrictions he said seriously undermined the principles of free trade.

The two U.S. allies have increasingly been at loggerheads as flaring tensions over Japan's 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula threaten to damage economic and defense ties that had previously seemed immune.

As emotions ran high, a South Korean man died Friday after setting himself on fire in his car outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, the Associated Press reported, citing police. The man told an acquaintance earlier he planned to self-immolate to express his anger toward Japan, the AP reported police as saying.

South Korea has proposed setting up a joint fund to compensate the former workers, but Japan said that violates the treaty terms and international law. President Moon's government earlier angered Japan when it shut down a separate fund meant for women trafficked in Japanese imperial army brothels.

South Korean courts have said that the individuals involved in the forced labor cases have not been compensated for their pain and suffering.

Japan's tighter checks on exports — set to be expanded as soon as next month — may hurt the economy, and Moon is seeking an extra budget to offset any effects. But there is little incentive for either government to reduce tensions at present.

Support for Moon rose to 48% this week from 45% a week ago, with respondents to a Gallup poll citing approval for his diplomacy as the reason. Japanese media surveys have also shown widespread approval for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's handling of disputes with South Korea, including the export controls.

Bloomberg's Jihye Lee contributed to this report.

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