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[Yuji Hosaka] Legitimacy of Korean Supreme Court’s verdict on former forced laborers

In October last year, the Korean Supreme Court ordered the Japanese company Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to pay 100 million won ($85,000) each to four Koreans who were forced to work for the company during Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. A series of similar court rulings has since followed.

Both Japan’s government and ruling Liberal Democratic Party have argued that the verdict violates international law, as the Korea-Japan Claims Settlement Agreement, attached to the 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations, stipulated that the right to file claims by either country or its people had been permanently resolved.

In 1991, however, the Japanese government admitted twice in the Japanese Diet legislature that an individual’s right to file a claim had not been terminated despite bilateral agreements like the 1965 treaty. At the time, Yanai Shunji, director of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Treaties Bureau, said an individual’s right to file a claim “was not terminated” when asked in parliament if a Japanese national could file a claim for assets he or she left in an area overseas that Japan had colonized. Shunji added that what was terminated was the country’s right to protect its individuals, supporting the Japanese people’s right to claim property they left overseas during the Japanese colonial era.

This logic is in line with the latest court ruling in Korea because a Korean still retains the right to file a claim and sue for compensation or damages.

Yet Japan is hindering its companies from making their own free decisions, saying they should not follow the verdict of the Korean Supreme Court. Furthermore, Tokyo has threatened Seoul with retaliatory measures if the latter seizes the Korea-based assets of the Japanese companies in question to award compensation to the victims.

When the first verdict was upheld last year in Korea, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters that a victim’s individual right to file a claim right had not expired. Later, he changed his stance by blaming the problem on the Korean government, insisting that Seoul violated the agreement on a permanent solution reached through the 1965 bilateral treaty.

This proves that Tokyo’s argument is nothing but a stubborn stance. As the Japanese government in 1991 said an individual’s right to file a claim was not terminated according to the 1965 treaty, either a Korean or Japanese today can exercise their right to claim properties and ask for compensation and damages for mental and psychological damage suffered.

Despite Tokyo’s official answer in 1991, no Japanese has regained his or her assets in Korea. This is because the Japanese people believe that their country’s colonization of Korea was unlawful and that they could not get their assets back even if they filed a lawsuit to that end.

The Korea-Japan Joint Declaration, signed in October 1998 by Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, officially expressed Tokyo’s apology for the damage and suffering of Korea because of Japan. This agreement proved that Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula was an unlawful act. When Japan gave money to Korea through the 1965 treaty, the amount was considered damages. Compensation is money paid to a victim who suffers from damage caused by a legal act. If Japanese colonization of the peninsula was illegal, Japan must pay damages for this illegal act. The money the Korean Supreme Court has ordered Nippon Steel to pay is consolation or damages, and Japan has yet to pay any damages to Korea.

Japan has reacted sensitively to this issue because if it keeps quiet about the latest Korean ruling, this means Tokyo acknowledges its colonization of Korea as an illegal act. If so, this will put Japan in unfavorable circumstances and could lead to damages being paid to North Korea if both nations normalize ties. This could explain Tokyo’s inconsistent political offensive.

The ruling by the Korean Supreme Court is legally justified. The Japanese government must stop unfairly intervening in its companies’ affairs in the name of mobilizing the nation’s right to protect itself, which was initially terminated in 1965. Korea should also further inform its people and the world about the justification of its latest verdict.

Yuji Hosaka
Yuji Hosaka teaches political science at Sejong University in Seoul. A naturalized Korean of Japanese descent, he is also director of the Dokdo Research Institute. –Ed.
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