A Seoul district court recently dismissed a suit demanding compensation for workers who were allegedly forced to engage in hard labor during the 35 years that Korea was a Japanese colony. Essentially, the court agreed with Japan’s position on the issue.
The verdict also represented a total rejection of a 2018 ruling on a similar case by the South Korean Supreme Court, a decision that sparked a diplomatic row between Seoul and Tokyo. It is fair to say that the decision was a “revolt” by the lower court.
The district court’s decision was based on sound logic in line with international common practice, and a forceful rebuttal to the Supreme Court decision, which cavalierly ignored international law and state-to-state relations.
The decision essentially said in no uncertain terms that demands for compensation for what happened when Japan was ruling Korea were totally and finally settled by the 1965 bilateral treaty normalizing relations and settling claims between Japan and South Korea. Therefore, there is no legal basis now for making demands to the Japanese side.
Since the recent ruling of the district court runs counter to the earlier Supreme Court decision, it is not clear what is going to happen next. Nevertheless, considering the political atmosphere in South Korea, where “Japan is always evil and South Korea is always righteous,” the lower court’s decision should be lauded as a demonstration of the courage to go against public opinion and uphold the rule of law.
The backlash to the decision was quick to come, with the left-leaning newspaper The Hankyoreh running the big headline (in Korean), “Is Our Own Court Saying Japan Created the Miracle on the Han River?” in its June 8th issue.
The paper also lambasted several points the court made in its decision, including that the compensation for claims that Seoul received from Tokyo at the time of the normalization treaty provided the foundation for South Korea’s subsequent economic development.
Basically, the argument that the paper made is that South Korean courts should ignore historical facts and accept without question the arguments of South Korean plaintiffs.
“What country are these judges from?” asked an internet petition to the President’s Office demanding the censure or dismissal of the judges involved. The call for retribution quickly garnered more than 300,000 signatures.
Yet some South Korean newspapers showed considerable courage in supporting the district court’s decision.
For example, in the June 10th issue of the conservative daily Chosun Ilbo, its editor-in-chief opined that “it is time for us to stop demanding that Japan cough up more money.”
The wartime labor compensation question was settled by the normalization treaty, and South Korea has enjoyed astonishing economic growth since then. These facts are indisputable.
Nevertheless, there are South Koreans still demanding that Japan pay more money. No wonder some of their fellow countrymen are bemoaning the fact that they should present 21st century South Korea as being so small-minded.
Moreover, public opinion can cut both ways. Regardless of whether they approve of the recent court decision or not, many South Koreans can be heard making comments like, “Are they still asking Japan for money?” or “It’s embarrassing that our country should still be talking about such things.”
The Chosun Ilbo editorial made another interesting observation. If Japanese were to start adopting the same logic as the South Korean plaintiffs demanding compensation, then individuals who left personal property in Korea when World War II ended might decide “to exercise their right to individually claim compensation.” That would create a new bilateral problem.
Incidentally, when Japan withdrew from the Korean Peninsula in 1945, it left a tremendous amount of assets there, including personal property. All these assets were confiscated by the American occupation forces and later turned over to the South Korean authorities.
Having signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, Japan announced to international society that it was relinquishing all claims against other countries. However, this merely covered claims against other governments that were signatories to the treaty, and South Korea was not.
Consequently, did not individual Japanese retain their right to seek compensation from South Korea? That is the hypothetical argument that is starting to be made.
As for what happened to the property that Japanese left in what is now South Korea, the Chosun Ilbo mentions a book published in 2015 entitled Research on Residual Assets by historian Lee Dae-geun. (A Japanese version is scheduled to be published in the near future.) But, so far, no Japanese has sought compensation for property lost at that time.
If such demands were to arise, they would create bedlam in bilateral relations and the international order. The recent district court ruling can be seen as an attempt to warn South Korean society about this threat.
- [Wartime Laborers] South Korea Ignores History, Violates 54-Year-Old Treaty
- EDITORIAL | Take Moon Jae In to Task for Reviving Settled Wartime Claims vs Japan
(Find access to the special Sankei Shimbun column in Japanese at this link.)
Author: Katsuhiro Kuroda
Katsuhiro Kuroda is a visiting editorial writer in Seoul for The Sankei Shimbun.