The Supreme Court has rendered a landmark verdict for Koreans who have been seeking compensation from Japanese companies for their forced labor during the colonial period (1910-45).
In two suits filed by 11 Koreans against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon Steel Corp., the highest court ruled that the two Japanese enterprises should pay their former Korean employees unpaid wages and compensation for their suffering.
The verdict carries deep legal, historical and political implications, as it overturned all previous rulings rendered by Korean and Japanese courts. It also contradicted the Seoul government’s stance on the issue.
The plaintiffs first brought the two corporations to Japanese courts in the 1990s. But Japanese courts ruled against them on the grounds that the 1965 agreement between Seoul and Tokyo on the settlement of claims related to the colonial era absolved the Japanese government and enterprises of any responsibility to compensate Korean victims.
The Korean lower courts that tried the cases also rejected the plaintiffs’ claims on similar grounds. They also said the statute of limitations on the cases had expired.
Yet the Supreme Court said the decisions reached by Japanese courts were not acceptable because they were based on the assumption that Japan’s colonial rule of Korea and its people was legitimate.
The Japanese rulings, the court said, “go against the core values of Korea’s Constitution,” which regards Japan’s colonial rule, including its forcible mobilization of Korean laborers, as illegal.
The Supreme Court also challenged the Japanese view that the 1965 agreement invalidated all compensation claims of individual Korean victims. The court rightly pointed out that the agreement was not about Japan’s compensation of Koreans for its wrongdoings during the colonial era.
The agreement, it said, was designed to settle debts and claims between the two countries on the government and private levels. The agreement defines its nature by stating that it was intended to “settle problems regarding the property of both countries and their peoples and the claims between both countries and between their peoples.”
During the negotiations, Japan refused to admit that its colonization of Korea was illegal. Insisting that it had nothing to compensate for, Japan offered Korea not compensation payments but loans and grants aimed at promoting economic cooperation between the two countries.
The Supreme Court rightly concludes from this that the 1965 agreement does not deprive individual Korean victims of their right to demand compensation for illegal activities or crimes against humanity committed by Japan during its colonial rule.
The top court also refuted the argument of the two Japanese corporations that they were not obliged to pay reparations because they were different entities from the wartime companies that forced Koreans to work for them.
The court’s decision brought joy to the plaintiffs. Yet they still have a long way to go to get recompense. In compliance with the top court’s ruling, the appellate courts will retry their cases and evaluate the damages for each victim. Then the Supreme Court will render a final verdict.
If the two Japanese companies refuse to compensate the victims as ordered, Korean courts can forcibly seize their assets in Korea and overseas. But this is easier said than done.
Following the court’s ruling, the Tokyo government reiterated its position that the 1965 agreement resolved all compensation claims of Korean forced laborers. It made it clear that it had no intention of helping the plaintiffs collect reparations.
To further pursue their claims, the plaintiffs need support from the Seoul government. Yet the government suggested that it would not take up the cases and take diplomatic action against the Tokyo government on behalf of the plaintiffs because its official stance is that the 1965 agreement covers compensation for forced Korean laborers.
The government’s position, however, runs counter to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the agreement. The court clearly said that the accord neither extinguished the right of individual Koreans to claim compensation nor circumscribed the Seoul government’s right of diplomatic protection.
The Korean government should follow up on the court’s verdict and take action for the forced laborers as their rights and interests have been injured by Japan and its companies.