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Former Mitsubishi Workers Seek Assets Sale for Forced Labor

by Hyung-Jin Kim .
Wednesday Jul 17, 2019
In this Nov. 29, 2018, file photo, victims of Japan's forced labor and their family members arrive at the Supreme Court in Seoul, South Korea
In this Nov. 29, 2018, file photo, victims of Japan's forced labor and their family members arrive at the Supreme Court in Seoul, South Korea  (Source:AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

Colonial-era Korean laborers are seeking a court's approval for the sales of local assets of their former Japanese employer after it refused to comply with a court order to compensate them for forced labor decades ago.

The development comes amid growing tensions between South Korea and Japan. Tokyo recently tightened controls on high-tech exports to South Korea, a move Seoul believes is retaliation for the South Korean court rulings last year. Japan says it is not retaliation.

Lawyers and supporters of the Koreans who worked for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries during Japan's 1910-45 occupation of Korea said in a joint statement Tuesday they'll soon ask a South Korean court to authorize the sales of some assets that South Korea has seized from Mitsubishi.

The assets are some of Mitsubishi's trademark rights and patents.

The lawyers and activists said they have sent three requests for negotiations on the compensation to Mitsubishi but it hasn't responded. Three plaintiffs died of old age this year, they said.

"We express our deep regret over the fact that our efforts to try to find a rational solution via dialogue for the development of South Korea-Japan ties have foundered repeatedly," their statement said.

If a court approves, Mitsubishi's assets will be put up for auction to raise funds to pay compensation to the former forced laborers. The whole process is expected to take about six months, according to Kim Yeong Hwan, an activist with a group that signed the joint statement.

Such an approval would likely fan antagonism between Seoul and Tokyo at a time when relations are already at their worst in decades.

South Korea has been stepping up pressure on Japan to withdraw the newly imposed trade controls, which require approvals for all sales of certain materials used in many high-tech products.

South Korea plans to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization and raise the issue at next week's WTO General Council in Geneva. Trade officials from the countries failed to resolve the dispute in a working-level meeting in Tokyo on Friday.

In his toughest comments yet on the issue, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Monday the measure threatens to shatter economic cooperation between the neighbors and could damage Japan more than South Korea. Moon accused Japan of abusing its leverage in trade to punish South Korea over their historical dispute.

Japan says the three materials subject to its export control measure can only be sent to trustworthy trading partners. Japanese officials have suggested there may have been transfers of sensitive materials from South Korea to North Korea in a violation of U.N. sanctions on the North. Seoul has dismissed as groundless such a view and proposed a U.N. investigation on it.

The Japanese trade minister, Hiroshige Seko, rejected Moon's comments and said he did not expect Japanese companies to be harmed by the tighter export controls.

Seko reiterated Tuesday that Japan's export curbs resulted from a review aimed at national security, to ensure implementation of export controls, and are not retaliation for South Korea's handling of disputes over former Korean wartime laborers and other historical issues.

"I will make it clear that President Moon's remark yesterday is completely off the mark," Seko told reporters in Tokyo. "The Japanese measures by their nature do not require checks by international organizations."

The Japanese side says it had sought unsuccessfully to discuss the issue with South Korea since 2016 and the failure to hold such meetings was a key reason behind Tokyo's decision.

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Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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