Uncertainty clouds trilateral Asian summit on Seoul-Tokyo squabble

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Seoul has been eyeing the trilateral summit, when President Moon Jae-in (left) will meet the new Japanese leader for the first time in person since Yoshihide Suga took office in mid-September. YONHAP NEWS AGENCY

The trilateral summit planned later this year for South Korea, Japan and China is no longer a sure thing, as Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has reportedly notified Seoul he will not attend unless “proper measures” are taken to settle a feud between Seoul and Tokyo over wartime forced labour.

South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday that it would continue to work toward the trilateral summit within this year and was consulting with the other two countries. The ministry declined to confirm the report about Suga.

Earlier in the day, Kyodo News reported that Tokyo had conveyed a message to Seoul late last month that it would be “impossible” for Suga to visit here unless “proper measures” were taken to address the forced labour issue, citing diplomatic sources.

Seoul is slated to host the annual three-way talks among the East Asian countries later this year, but with Japan’s resistance, the report said, the summit may not happen.

It said Suga was demanding assurance from Seoul that the assets seized from a Japanese firm following a ruling by South Korea’s top court will not be liquidated, as a condition of his visit. The court vindicated victims of forced labour and awarded damages.

The two Asian neighbours have remained divided over history for decades, with their concerns rooted in disputes over Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910-1945.

But the conflict reached a new level of acrimony after South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that Japan’s top steelmaker, Nippon Steel, was obliged to compensate the Korean victims who were forced to work for them during World War II.

The decision drew a strong rebuke from Tokyo, which maintains that all related issues were settled under the 1965 treaty normalising bilateral relations.

Assets held by Nippon Steel in South Korea have been seized and are now in the process of being liquidated, an outcome that Tokyo has warned multiple times would do “irreparable” damage to bilateral ties. Last year, apparently in retaliation, Tokyo toughened its restrictions on exports to Seoul.

Seoul has been eyeing the trilateral summit, when President Moon will meet the new Japanese leader for the first time in person since Suga took office in mid-September after his predecessor Shinzo Abe stepped down for health reasons, as a chance to mend ties between the two countries.

After coming to power, Suga called for both countries to improve their frayed ties, during his first phone conversation with Moon.

Observers, however, say there will be no drastic improvement in bilateral ties under Suga, who has said he will continue with Abe’s foreign policy.