Japan summons South Korea envoy in escalating row over wartime forced labor

TOKYO/SEOUL (Reuters) – Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono summoned South Korea’s ambassador on Friday in a deepening diplomatic row over compensation for Korean wartime forced labor that threatens global supply of microchips and smartphone displays.

FILE PHOTO: Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono attends a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia May 10, 2019. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/File Photo

The dispute took a tragic turn earlier on Friday when a South Korean man set himself on fire in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in an apparent protest.

Also in Seoul, South Korea’s Trade Ministry repeated calls for Japan to hold serious talks by July 24 over Tokyo’s “tighter” export controls of high-tech materials to South Korean chipmaking giants imposed early this month.

Lee Ho-hyeon, a director general at the trade ministry, said Japan’s plan to remove South Korea from its “white list” of countries with minimum trade restrictions should be based on “clear evidence and facts”.

“There are major concerns that such a move would have a grave impact on not only the economies in both countries, but the global supply chain,” Lee said at a televised briefing.

Officials said the South Korean man who set himself alight outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul was in critical condition.

The 78-year-old man, surnamed Kim, drove up to the building around 3:20 a.m. (1820 GMT Thursday), stopped in front of the gate and set fire to the car while sitting in it, an official at Seoul’s Jongno Fire Station said.

The man’s father-in-law was said to be a victim of forced labor by Japanese firms during World War Two and he may have acted in protest against Japan’s export curbs, a South Korean TV broadcaster said, quoting the police.

Police and fire officials both declined to comment on the man’s possible motivations, citing ongoing investigations.

Compensation of South Koreans for labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula has soured relations between the United States’ closest Asian allies.

Nam Gwan-pyo, South Korea’s ambassador to Japan, arrived at the foreign ministry in Tokyo on Friday to meet Kono and was told that Seoul must take swift measures to correct what Japan believes is a violation international law.

“What the South Korean government is doing now is equivalent to subverting the post-World War Two international order,” Kono said at the start of the meeting.

He once again urged Seoul to take appropriate steps to rectify what Japan says was an improper ruling last year by South Korea’s Supreme Court ordering two Japanese companies to compensate the wartime workers.

South Korea’s Samsung Electronics (005930.KS) has sent letters to partners urging them to stockpile more Japanese components in case Tokyo expands its export restrictions.

On Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in met major party leaders and vowed to work together to resolve the dispute with Japan.

A senior national security adviser told lawmakers at the meeting South Korea could reconsider an intelligence sharing pact it has with Japan if the dispute worsens.

Trade minister director general Lee said at the meeting Japan had “clearly” demanded the reinstatement of the export curbs, refuting Japan’s claims that such a demand was not made.

Lee also said the ministry wanted to deliver a statement calling for the withdrawal of the export curbs to Japan. However, Japan declined to receive the statement after hearing its content, he said.

Reporting by Joyce Lee, Hyunjoo Jin, and Josh Smith in SEOUL, and Linda Sieg, William Mallard, and Chris Gallagher in TOKYO; Editing by Jack Kim and Paul Tait

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