South Korea is considering "various scenarios" for what to do about an escalating row over Japan's wartime forced labor, depending on how Tokyo reacts after its deadline for an arbitration panel on the issue expired on Thursday, officials said.
Tokyo gave Seoul until Thursday to respond to its June 19 request to form a panel consisting of three third-country members. On Tuesday, Korea's presidential office Cheong Wa Dae publicly spurned the request, calling it "unacceptable."
"We are considering various scenarios depending on how Japan will move," a diplomatic official in Seoul told Yonhap News Agency without elaborating. "Our response will hinge on Japan's course of action."
The foreign ministry here rejected Tokyo's deadline, stressing that Japan has unilaterally imposed it over the highly charged issue stemming from Tokyo's 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula.
"Japan set the date unilaterally and arbitrarily. We doubt if there is a need to be bound by that," ministry spokesman Kim In-chul told a regular press briefing.
The dispute over the thorny issue has been escalating as Japan recently imposed an export control measure against South Korea, which is widely seen as a retaliatory step in response to last year's top court rulings here against Japanese firms over forced labor.
During its standing committee session Thursday, the presidential National Security Council reiterated its call for Tokyo to retract the measure and explore a diplomatic resolution with Seoul.
President Moon Jae-in hosted a rare meeting with the leaders of ruling and opposition parties where he called for bipartisan support in coping with the complex foreign policy challenge.
Japan has been protesting court rulings that ordered Japanese firms to compensate South Korean victims of forced labor. It claims that all reparation issues related to its past colonial rule were settled under a 1965 treaty aimed at normalizing bilateral relations.
South Korea remains open to diplomatic talks with Japan over the issue. But Japan demands that the two sides invoke a dispute settlement process enshrined in the 1965 treaty.
"If Tokyo accedes to our call for dialogue, we will respond to that. Then we may have to elucidate our positions and make efforts to find common ground," another foreign ministry official said on condition of anonymity.
"We are continuing to call for dialogue. We believe that a retaliatory economic measure should be stopped, and that the issue should be resolved through dialogue," the official added.
In an effort to address the acrimonious dispute, Seoul has proposed that South Korean and Japanese firms create a joint fund to compensate victims of forced labor. Tokyo immediately rejected the overture.
Seoul has been bracing for the possibility of Tokyo taking additional retaliatory steps, such as removing South Korea from the so-called whitelist of countries given preferential treatment in trade procedures.
To defuse tensions with Tokyo, Seoul has also been calling for Washington to "engage" to find a dialogue-based solution or forestall an escalation of the increasingly rancorous dispute between the two U.S. allies.
During his visit to Seoul on Wednesday, David Stilwell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asian affairs, said that the U.S. will do "what it can" to support the efforts to resolve the Seoul-Tokyo spat.
Japan has been pushing for the formation of an arbitration panel based on dispute settlement procedures under the bilateral 1965 treaty.
The accord stipulates that Seoul and Tokyo are to settle any dispute concerning the interpretation or the implementation of it primarily through diplomatic channels.
If they fail to settle it, the case can then be referred to a commission involving a third-country arbitrator agreed on by the two sides. Should this fail again, the two sides are to form a panel consisting of three third-country members.(Yonhap)