December 14, 2018 / 7:40 AM / a year ago

South Korea's Moon urges 'restrained' language in forced labor row with Japan

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 a 1965 treaty did not remove the workers’ right to reparations, as “unthinkable”.

The strain in relations between the two U.S. allies could affect efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, analysts say.

Moon, who met Japanese lawmakers in Seoul on Friday, said his government would take its time to seek a solution because the issue was triggered by a judicial ruling that must be respected.

“I think we need to use cautious, restrained expressions on this issue so as not to incite antagonistic emotions of the peoples of both countries,” Moon said at the meeting.

“Hurting the amicable sentiment between the two countries does not help the progress of the future relationship between South Korea and Japan,” he added.

Japanese leaders have reacted angrily to the Nippon Steel verdict and a later ruling against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd, arguing that the issue was settled by the 1965 treaty.

At a press briefing in Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the South Korean rulings defied international law.

“Relations between our two countries right now are in a very difficult situation,” he said. “We will continue to strongly urge the South Korean government to respond in the appropriate manner.”

Moon addressed another contentious bilateral issue over Seoul’s decision last month to disband 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 has said it will discuss with Japan what to do with the balance of the fund, which stood at 16.08 billion won ($14.2 million) by end-October, including Seoul’s contributions.

“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 said.

Additional reporting by Stanley White in Tokyo.; Editing by Paul Tait and Darren Schuettler

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