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EDITORIAL | South Korea Court Dredges Up Long-Resolved Wartime Labor Issue

South Korea must adhere to its agreements or lose international trust. It must recognize those parties out to destroy the foundations of Japan-Korea relations.



A group of plaintiffs in Seoul demand compensation and an apology from Japan after the South Korean Supreme Court handed down a ruling ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation. (© Sankei by Tatsuya Tokiyoshi)

The Supreme Court in South Korea has confirmed two more judgments ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation related to the "wartime labor" issue. 

Both court decisions not only ignore historical facts, they also violate state-to-state agreements between Japan and South Korea. Moreover, they use incorrect terms, such as "forcibly mobilized labor," and make other factual errors. This decision is totally unacceptable.

The lawsuits in question involve respectively seven former workers at the predecessor of Nippon Steel and four Koreans who, as members of the Volunteer Corps, formerly worked at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. In some cases, members of the workers' families are making claims on behalf of their relatives. The two lawsuits were filed between 2013 and 2014.

The South Korean Supreme Court dismissed the appeals by the Japanese companies. It stated that there were no errors in the judgments made by the lower courts. Those judgments said they recognized the right of "victims of forced labor" to claim compensation. 

The courts awarded them collectively a total of ₩1.17 billion KRW. (That is around ¥130 million JPY or a little more than $900,000 USD.) It thereby finalized the judgments of the courts of the first and second instance ordering the companies to pay compensation. 

South Korean Supreme Court in Seoul. (© Sankei by Kota Kiriyama)

Claims Were Settled in 1965

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi condemned the decision. "These [decisions] are clearly in violation of the Japan-South Korea agreement on claims and are extremely regrettable," he affirmed. He added that Japan would protest to the South Korean government. 

Hopefully, the Japanese government will make it crystal clear that these orders for Japanese companies to pay compensation violate both international law and historical facts.  

In the first place, there is no obligation for any Japanese party to pay compensation for what happened during the war.  Issues of compensation between Japan and South Korea, including for their nationals, were "settled completely and finally" by the 1965 claims agreement that accompanied the normalization of diplomatic relations

Families of plaintiffs demonstrate in front of the South Korean Supreme Court in Seoul. On December 21. (© Kyodo)

Based on the agreement, Japan paid South Korea $300 million USD gratis and $200 million in compensation. Those funds provided the basis for South Korea's postwar recovery. Moreover, the pledges made under this agreement formed the basis for later bilateral relations.

The use of such expressions as "forced labor" is also inaccurate. The case is based on the time when Japan ruled Korea and the Koreans were subjects of the Japanese empire. From 1944 under the National Conscription Law, there were workers from Korea employed in Japanese factories. However, they were paid regular wages and therefore should be considered lawfully mobilized workers.  

President Yoon Suk-yeol, President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida take a picture at Camp David. (Pool photograph.)

Living By International Agreements

Meanwhile, the current administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol values good relations with Japan. As a result, it announced a solution to the "mobilized workers'' issue. That involved setting up a foundation affiliated with the South Korean government to pay compensation to successful plaintiffs. However, some plaintiffs adamantly refuse to accept this solution. 

The reason why the plaintiffs remain dissatisfied is no doubt that successive Korean governments have not provided adequate explanations. Instead, they have dredged up already resolved issues for political purposes. Meanwhile, this is clearly an "issue" that the South Korean side is responsible for solving. 

If Seoul does not adhere to its agreements with other countries, South Korea will lose the trust of the international community. The South Korean side must recognize which parties are out to destroy the foundations of Japan-Korea relations. Domestically, as well, some parties would rejoice if there was a deterioration of relations.


(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun

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