On June 7, the Seoul District Court dismissed a lawsuit seeking damages against Japanese companies. Former Korean wartime laborers and their relatives had alleged that they were forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II.
The court’s decision was only to be expected in the light of international law. It defies common sense to continue dragging out this issue, and only increase international distrust of South Korea. It is time for the Moon Jae In administration to take responsibility for this issue and quickly settle it once and for all.
In ruling that South Koreans could not seek compensation for alleged mistreatment through lawsuits against the Japanese government or Japanese entities and individuals, the Seoul District Court cited the provisions of the 1965 agreement normalizing relations between Japan and South Korea.
That was the only just conclusion for the court to draw. The treaty of normalization clearly states that all claims between the two governments and their citizens “have been settled completely and finally.”
That agreement has the same force as an international treaty, so that if claims for compensation are recognized by South Korean courts, they could violate South Korea’s treaty obligations under international law.
Furthermore, if the courts implemented forcible execution orders to collect compensation, it would amount to the abuse of rights and the principle of sovereign immunity for foreign governments. It could develop into a diplomatic issue, which in turn could endanger security relations and the maintenance of regional order.
It goes without saying that the courts should not have to declare that promises must be kept. If agreements were violated at will by one side or the other, then negotiations and relations between nations based on trust would become impossible.
In April, in another closely watched court case in South Korea, a South Korean court dismissed a lawsuit brought against the Japanese government by a group of former comfort women. That decision too was correct in that, according to international law, a sovereign state is not subject to judicial authorities in another country.
Be that as it may, we still cannot celebrate without reservation South Korea’s seeming return to sanity.
First of all, the wartime labor lawsuit controversy has not been unambiguously settled. That is because in a similar lawsuit in 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that a Japanese corporation had to pay compensation. That ruling was diametrically the opposite of the recent Seoul District Court ruling.
In the earlier case, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that although the employment might have been legal at that time, the Japanese company in question “engaged in inhuman and illegal acts directly related to illegal colonial rule and the conduct of a war of aggression.”
In that case, the Supreme Court turned a blind eye to historical facts and trampled on international law. Such a ruling causes considerable concern as to whether South Korea truly is a nation where the rule of law prevails.
One reason for the runaway justice system in South Korea is the attitude of President Moon himself. After the latest court ruling, the South Korean foreign ministry issued a statement, saying that it would continue to pursue discussions with Japan to settle the issue.
Nonetheless, as far as Japan is concerned, the issue is already settled. Everything now depends on the South Korean government accepting its own responsibility.
Then there is the case about a statue illegally erected in the city of Daejeon depicting a laborer so thin that his ribs are showing. It is supposed to symbolize victims of wartime labor when Korea was under Japanese rule.
In May, a South Korean court found that a worker on whom the statue was modeled was not Korean but rather a Japanese. In other words, falsehoods should not be granted legal protection.
The gross distortions of history that have been bandied about concerning the comfort women as well as the wartime labor issue are simply unforgivable. The truth must win out and Japan’s reputation must be defended.
(Read The Sankei Shimbun editorial in Japanese at this link.)
Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun