The top court ruled Tuesday that a Japanese steel firm must compensate four South Korean victims forced to work in its factories during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, a decision expected to intensify tension between the neighboring countries.
The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s 2013 ruling that ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to pay 100 million won ($88,000) in compensation to each of the four victims, recognizing their rights to sue for damages despite the 1965 Korea-Japan Normalization Treaty.
The court said the treaty did not terminate the victims’ rights to open a damages suit because they are seeking to be compensated for their suffering inflicted by “Japanese firms’ anti-humanitarian, illegal acts related to illegal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and war of aggressions.”
The right to compensation for forced labor is not subjected to the treaty, the court added.
In the treaty that settled colonial-era issues and normalized diplomatic relations between the neighbors, Seoul and Tokyo said that all matters involving the rights to compensation were “completely and finally” resolved in return for Tokyo’s $500 million “economic cooperation” fund provided to Seoul.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono called the ruling “regrettable and totally unacceptable,” saying the ruling “clearly violated” the 1965 treaty.
Tokyo maintains the issue of forced labor by Japan had been resolved under the treaty.
“We strongly urge South Korea to correct the illegal status under the international law and take appropriate measures,” Kono said, adding Tokyo is considering taking the case to the International Court of Justice.
Japan’s Foreign Ministry summoned South Korean Ambassador to Japan Lee Su-hoon to lodge a protest.
Seoul said that it “respects” the judiciary‘s judgement, but expressed hope to develop “future-oriented” relations with Japan.
“Based on this, Prime Minister (Lee Nak-yon) will draw up the government’s follow-up measures together with relevant ministries and private experts, comprehensively taking into account relevant aspects,” the Prime Minister‘s Office said in a statement.
Lee Choon-shik, a victim who was forced to work for a Japanese company during World War II, sits inside the Supreme Court in Seoul on Oct. 30. (Reuters)
Japan’s top court confirmed a ruling against the South Korean victims in 2003, prompting the victims to initiate a suit in South Korea in 2005. South Korea’s lower courts ruled against the victims, saying the ruling by Japan’s court is valid in South Korea as well.
In a 2012 landmark ruling, however, the Supreme Court recognized the victims’ right to file a compensation suit against Japanese firms, saying Japan’s ruling is against South Korea’s constitutional values.
The top court sent back the case to the Seoul High Court, which ruled in favor of the victims. The Japanese firm filed an appeal.
Tuesday’s ruling came after some five years of deliberation at the Supreme Court.
Only one of the four victims forced to work at the Japanese steel mills between 1941 and 1943 remains alive. The other three died while the case was pending. There were allegations the previous Park Geun-hye administration pressured the court to delay the ruling out of fear of damaging Seoul-Tokyo ties.
“I won the case but I am here alone, so I am said, a lot of tears are flowing,” Lee Choon-sik, 94, said outside the courtroom in southern Seoul. “I could have been so much happier if we had won the ruling altogether.”
Following the ruling, ties between Seoul and Tokyo are expected to hit a new low, despite the South Korean government’s efforts to separate historical issues from political ones to pursue forward-looking relations.
Seoul has also maintained that the issue had been settled in 1965. The ruling contradicts its earlier position and Seoul now faces the tough task of mending the discrepancy between the court and the government on the issue.
The ruling is expected to affect some 10 other cases involving South Korean victims of forced labor by Japanese firms.
South Korea and Japan are also in a diplomatic row over the fate of Japan-funded foundation for South Korean victims of Japan’s sexual wartime enslavement set up under a 2015 deal. The Moon Jae-in administration called the deal “flawed” and seeks to disband the foundation, citing victims’ bitter sentiments against it, while Japan urges South Korea to abide by the deal.
“It is inevitable that the ruling will take a toll on relations between South Korea and Japan. Japan will take a tough line, accusing South Korea of contradicting its own position,” said Jin Chang-soo, senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.
South Korea should make clear its stance as to whether the 1965 treaty resolved the issue of forced labor or not, and play a necessary role through close consultations with Japan, he added.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com