South Korea’s Supreme Court Orders Japanese Firm To Compensate Wartime Employees

South Korea’s Supreme Court has ordered a Japanese steelmaker to compensate the victims of forced labour during Japan’s wartime control of the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945. The court ordered the company, Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation (NSSM) to pay 100 million won ($88,000) in compensation to each of the four victims who were forced to work at the company’s steel mills between 1941 and 1943, and were subject to beatings and burns. Only one of the four victims is currently alive, who along with the other former labourers, initiated the lawsuit in Japan in 2005 against NSSM, seeking compensation and unpaid wages.

The company has since called the decision by the court ‘deeply regrettable,’ saying that it has gone against the 1965 Treaty between South Korea and Japan, to restore diplomatic relations between the countries. In this Treaty, the Japanese government committed to pay $300 million in grants over a 10 year period and also provide $200 million in low-interest loans. The Japanese courts and government also feel that NSSM can’t be held liable for offences, and have advised Japanese companies facing similar lawsuits over forced labour not to compensate or settle with the plaintiffs. Japanese officials have described the ruling as ‘extremely regrettable and totally unacceptable’ also contending the violation of the 1965 Treaty, which is an ‘Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims on Economic Cooperation Between Japan and the Republic of Korea.’ Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the ruling an ‘unbelievable decision’ and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono has said that the ruling has ‘one-sidedly and fundamentally damaged the legal foundation of Japan-South Korea relations.’ However, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that the 1965 Treaty did not terminate the right for individuals to claim damages and seek compensation for the ‘inhumane and illegal’ experiences they were forced into.

This is not the first time that tensions have arisen relating to Japan’s colonial rule over South Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has questioned the validity of a 2015 agreement with Japan relating to compensation of South Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s wartime military. The agreement calls on both countries to refrain from accusing or criticizing each other about the issue, and also included a $9 million fund to support the victims, provided by Japan. Many South Koreans believe Seoul settled for far too little, and the issue here seems to highlight whether a single financial compensation package is enough to permanently settle all wartime compensation issues, which Tokyo maintains that the $500 million Japan has provided to South Korea, does. South Korea on the other hand, says that individuals still have the rights to seek compensation, and this links to the wider issue between the two countries of how Japan’s history is presented and accepted.

The court ruling will be pivotal to future relations between the two countries, with Japan saying it could potentially take the case to the International Court of Justice as they feel that the ruling has breached international law. There are also worries that the friction between the countries could damage their collaborative work to deal with the issues of North Korea. As of yet, Japan hasn’t clarified the specific measures is it seeking from the South Korean government after the ruling but recognizes the potential grave impact on bilateral ties.

Behind the discussions around political relations, the underlying impact of these tensions can be seen in individual cases, such as Lee Chun-sik, the 94-year-old who is one of four who has survived the lengthy legal battle. He says, ‘I went to Japan as a worker at a young age and went through much suffering and I would like to see this issue finalized within my lifetime.’ Lee has finally received his back pay, 75 years late. This ruling could trigger more lawsuits in the future against Japanese companies accused of exploiting forced labour and will be important in setting a precedent in similar cases currently sitting in local courts and in the future. This will likely have a significant impact on Japanese- South Korean ties, as Japanese firms in similar lawsuits could face similar outcomes. What can be concluded, is that clearer communication is needed between the countries to reach a final agreement, and perhaps the recognition that the 1965 Treaty may not be appropriate and needs to be amended to consider the individual human impacts of forced labour that occurred during wartime control.