North Korea tells Japan it may raise wartime labor issue if Tokyo keeps up pressure on abductees

North Korea told Japan that in any future bilateral talks it may raise the subject of wartime labor during Tokyo’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula until the end of World War II, diplomatic sources said Saturday.

The wartime labor issue has been the source of heightened tension between Tokyo and Seoul, after South Korea’s top court last year ordered several Japanese companies to compensate South Korean workers for forced labor.

Japan has refused to comply with the court ruling based on its stance that the matter of compensation for wartime labor was resolved under 1965 agreement, a move Pyongyang has repeatedly criticized in state media.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, via a Mongolian diplomat in mid-December, that he would have “no choice” but to bring up the matter if Tokyo insists on pursuing the issue of Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, the sources said.

Japan is unlikely to back down over the abduction issue, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said is a top priority. One official close to Abe said the administration will pursue a resolution to the issue “no matter what the other side says.”

This means that even if Japan does open a dialogue with North Korea, as South Korea and the United States have done, negotiations will likely be fraught with obstacles.

Ri met with Mongolian Foreign Minister Damdin Tsogtbaatar in Ulan Bator on Dec. 8.

According to the sources, Ri asked Tsogtbaatar to relay the message that Japan was being illogical by asking for the return of individuals it identifies as abductees who have already died or never entered North Korea in the first place.

Ri also said that should Tokyo continue to focus on the abductions, he would bring up the issue of the “more than 8.4 million Koreans who were forced to work” under Japanese colonial rule, the sources said.

Japan passed the National Mobilization Law in 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, allowing it to begin requisitioning workers at home the following year and later on the Korean Peninsula.

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