Top S. Korea court orders Japanese firm to pay for forced labour

Glen Norman
November 1, 2018

The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered a Japanese steelmaker to compensate four South Koreans for wartime forced labor and unpaid work, casting a cloud over already soured ties between the two neighbors.

Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami told a news conference that if Seoul did not respond promptly, Tokyo would consider its options, including worldwide arbitration.

Seoul's supreme courts clarified that individual compensation rights remained valid, despite settling reparations claims at the government level in 1965.

"This shakes the fundamentals of the bilateral relations built since the normalization of the bilateral diplomatic relations in 1965", Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told South Korean Ambassador Lee Su-hoon on Tuesday, Yonhap News reported.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in had no immediate reaction to the ruling.

A day earlier, Kono called the decision "very regrettable and totally unacceptable", after the South Korean top court upheld the July 2013 ruling by the Seoul High Court that ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal pay 400 million won (¥39.7 million) in compensation to the workers. Among them, only 94-year-old Lee Chun-sik has survived the legal battle that extended for almost 14 years. "It would have been good if we were still here altogether".

Only one of the four South Koreans who brought the case lived to hear Tuesday's verdict. The current company, one of the world's largest steel producers, was formed from the merger of several companies after the war.

The highest court in Osaka ruled that NSSM, a company created by a merger between Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Industries in 2012, is not obliged to take on financial liabilities of its former company.

Contentious issues include not only South Koreans who were subject to forced labor, but also the issue of "comfort women" - a euphemism that refers to women and girls forced to provide sex for Japanese troops before and during World War II.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun is shown in this photo taken October 28, 2018 after he arrived in Seoul for talks with South Korean foreign ministry officials on the North's nuclear disarmament.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe criticised the South Korean ruling, saying it was "impossible" under worldwide law and that the issue had been "completely and finally settled" by the 1965 treaty. On Seoul-Tokyo relations, the prime minister said he hoped bilateral ties "develop future-orientedly". Many South Koreans believe Seoul settled for far too little in that agreement and have been calling for the disbanding of a Seoul-based foundation established to support the victims with a 1 billion yen ($9 million) fund provided by Japan.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe criticized the South Korean ruling, which ordered a Japanese steel giant to pay compensation over forced wartime labor, saying it was "impossible" under global law and that the issue had been "completely and finally settled" by the 1965 treaty.

He said it was significant that the ruling upheld a 2012 verdict that Japan's occupation of the peninsula was illegal.

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