An appellate court Tuesday ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to compensate the families of five former Korean employees who were subjected to forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule.
In a retrial, the Busan High Court ruled that the engineering and aviation behemoth should provide each family with 80 million won ($72,000) in overdue salary and other damages.
The ruling marked the second victory for former conscripted Korean laborers since they started litigation in the mid-1990s in Korea and Japan.
Early this month, the Seoul High Court also ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. (previously Nippon Steel Corp.) to pay four of its former workers 100 million won each in back wages and additional damages.
“Mitsubishi took the plaintiffs to Hiroshima and forced them into hard labor in a poor environment without paying salaries,” the verdict said.
“And despite the atomic bombing, it did not take rescue measures such as providing them with proper shelter and food, and thus has a liability of compensation.”
The indemnity reflects the period and intensity of labor, working environment and the degree to which freedom was suppressed, unpaid salaries, and the fact that the suitors have not been compensated for more than 60 years, the ruling added.
The five people including Park Chang-hwan and Lee Byung-mok, who were taken to Japan to work from 1941-44 and are now deceased, sued Mitsubishi in Japan in 1995.
After losing the suit, they lodged another collective suit against the Tokyo-based firm in Busan in 2000, demanding 606 million won in withheld pay and compensation for their forced labor and the company’s negligence in caring for their health and safety.
Another group of four filed a separate case against the steel giant in Seoul in 2005 after losing a 1997 suit in Japan.
They claimed to have been exposed to life-threatening conditions and suffered from the aftereffects of mistreatment, including radiation-related illnesses after the atomic bombing by the U.S. in 1945.
But lower and appellate courts dismissed both cases, citing the Japanese rulings, a change in the enterprises’ corporate structure, and the expiration of the statute of limitations.
In a milestone decision, the Supreme Court overturned the verdicts and sent the case back to the high courts in May 2012, calling the Japanese ruling a “direct challenge to the core values of the Korean Constitution that regards forcible mobilization during the occupation as illegal in itself.”
The top court for the first time acknowledged the former laborers’ individual right to seek compensation, rejecting the firm’s assertion that it was nullified by a 1965 settlement between the two countries on wartime claims.
“Though belatedly, I appreciate that our court recognized the forced laborers’ claim for damages. It’s sad that we could not receive compensation while my dad was alive,” said Park Jae-hoon, the 66-year-old son of Park Chang-hwan.
The Korean Bar Association called for “historic reconciliation” between the businesses and their former workers.
“Mitsubishi should take the lead in setting up a relief foundation participated by the South Korean and Japanese governments, as well as the Japanese firms responsible for forced conscription,” they said at a news conference in Busan.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, almost 227,000 Koreans have reported their forced labor in Japan.
But some scholars project that the number of Koreans put into forced labor between April 1938 and Korea’s liberation in August 1945 may have reached 8 million.
By Shin Hyon-hee (firstname.lastname@example.org)