(Last of 5 Parts)
Despite the 1965 Agreement and payments to mobilized laborers, anti-Japan activists, including Japanese lawyers and extremist labor union members, have traveled to South Korea since the 1990s, looking for plaintiffs, encouraging them to sue Japanese companies and agreeing to bear the expenses. Lawsuits were filed in Japan, demanding reparations from Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corporation, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and Nachi-Fujikoshi.
In these cases, the Japanese courts ruled against plaintiffs and the activists promoting them. Nevertheless, the activists and supporters continued their activities, persistently holding demonstrations at the headquarters of Japanese companies and criticizing the companies in the local media.
Settlements That ‘Settle’ Nothing
Bending to the pressure of demonstrators, Nachi-Fujikoshi agreed in 2000 to an out-of-court settlement of the case against it. The company ended up paying a sum of over ¥30 million JPY to three plaintiffs, five former colleagues, and the Association for Pacific War Victims and Bereaved Families, whose president was Kim Gyeong Suk.
This did not resolve the matter, however. As soon as the out-of-court settlement was paid, another new plaintiff appeared from South Korea, and Nachi-Fujikoshi was sued again.
When at First You Don’t Succeed, Try Another Court
Meanwhile, in all court cases in Japan where the companies refused to settle out of court, the companies won. Nevertheless, activists and their plaintiffs did not give up, taking their cases next to the South Korean courts.
The plaintiffs also lost in the South Korean trial courts in their lawsuits against the companies Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corporation, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, and Nachi-Fujikoshi. They appealed, however, and in May 2012 the South Korean Supreme Court abruptly reversed the lower court decisions and sent the cases back for further hearings, in violation of both international law and common sense.
The South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling was based on the theory that Japan’s annexation of Korea was illegal. It declared that “grounds for Japanese rulings were premised on the legality of Japanese colonial rule of the Korean peninsula and Korean people.”
The court added its view that “forced labor itself during Japanese imperial occupation was illegal and in direct conflict with the core values of the Constitution of South Korea.” The ruling claimed decisions by the Japanese courts “violated the good public morals and social order of South Korea,” and thus, the South Korean courts did not have to recognize their validity.
On that extraordinary basis, the high court ruled against the Japanese companies, which then filed an appeal again.
As one would expect, the Chief Justice and several other justices of the Supreme Court, along with then-president Park Geun Hye and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, felt that issuing a final judgment on the case would shake the foundations of Japan-Korea relations, and would not be in South Korea’s national interest. Thus, they attempted to coordinate behind closed doors.
But in the face of public opinion tainted by anti-Japan discrimination in the mass media, they lacked the courage to overturn the 2012 ruling. The trial dragged on.
Activist ‘Justice’ Under the Moon Administration
Immediately after President Moon Jae In took office in May 2017, he took the exceptional step of appointing Kim Myeong Soo, a well-known left-wing district court judge, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Kim then promptly initiated a criminal investigation into the actions of his predecessors who had delayed finalizing the 2012 ruling.
The former justices who had headed the Supreme Court under the previous administration were then arrested. The previous chief justice was targeted as a suspect, even having his private vehicle searched.
By August 2018, Chief Justice Kim had appointed new justices to the Supreme Court and held a comfortable majority. The Supreme Court then sent the Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corporation case back to the South Korean superior court for trial in accordance with the findings of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Likewise, the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries trial was sent back for trial in September that year.
The Moon Jae-in administration has continued to implement policies that arouse anti-Japanese sentiment without consideration of their bilateral obligations under international law or the diplomatic consequences of their actions.
This is the reason why rulings that violate international law and common sense have been handed down one after another in succession. The Japanese companies lost their cases in October and November 2018.
Japan’s mobilization of Korean wartime laborers was legal by Japanese and international standards, not an inhumane criminal act as it has sometimes been misconstrued. Mobilized workers were hired by private companies on two-year contracts and paid wages on a par with those of Japanese. Tales of forced or slave labor are lies invented well after the war.
Likewise, all individual claims for unpaid wages and compensation for deaths were properly settled under the 1965 Agreement. The Korean government has already implemented compensation for individuals based on the 1965 Agreement on two separate occasions.
Present-day Japan-Korea relations must be approached on the basis of this fundamental reality. Yet, unfortunately, these facts are not well-known in the international community. It is my hope that this essay will contribute to awareness of the basic facts of this issue.
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Author: Tsutomu Nishioka