Ex-Requisitioned Worker Lawsuit: S. Korean Govt Should Minimize Impact of Unreasonable Court Ruling

A situation must not be repeated in which an unreasonable ruling by the South Korean judiciary on a historical issue deals a blow to Japan-South Korea relations. It is hoped that Seoul will work to minimize the impact of the ruling.

A ruling has been handed down on appeals in two lawsuits in which plaintiffs had sought damages. One suit was lodged against Nippon Steel Corp. (formerly Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp.) by former requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula, while the other was brought against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. by former members of the women volunteer labor corps. Both plaintiff groups came to Japan during this country’s colonial rule.

The South Korean Supreme Court rejected the appeals by both companies, and as a result, lower court rulings ordering the two firms to pay compensation were finalized.

The latest Supreme Court ruling followed a previous 2018 top court ruling that ordered the two Japanese companies to pay compensation in a similar lawsuit. The 2018 ruling acknowledged the plaintiffs’ right to claim compensation based on the unilateral view that Japan’s colonial rule was illegal.

The Agreement on the Settlement of Problems concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which was concluded in conjunction with the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two nations in 1965, stipulates that the issue of claims between them “is settled completely and finally.” It is obvious that the Supreme Court’s series of rulings are contrary to the agreement.

The Japanese government has protested to the South Korean government, saying that the latest ruling is absolutely unacceptable. If the assets of the Japanese companies are liquidated for compensation in accordance with the top court’s ruling, Japan-South Korea relations could collapse from its very foundation.

To avoid this, in March this year, the administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol announced a solution in which a third-party foundation under the aegis of the South Korean government will pay an amount equivalent to the compensation to the plaintiffs and others. Many of the target plaintiffs accepted the payment, leading to the normalization of relations between the two countries.

More than 80 similar lawsuits have been filed, involving more than 1,000 plaintiffs. There is a large possibility that Japanese companies will continue to lose such lawsuits in the future. It is hoped that Seoul will thoroughly explain to the South Korean public the significance of applying the system based on payment by the third-party organization to bring about a solution to the problem.

What is worrisome is that some of the plaintiffs are refusing to accept the payment under the system. Even though the foundation has taken steps to deposit an amount equivalent to the compensation with courts, the courts have rejected all of its requests. If the deposits are not approved, there could be a resurgence of moves seeking to liquidate Japanese companies’ assets.

South Korean courts have a tendency to issue anti-Japanese and radical rulings on historical issues between Japan and South Korea. This may be an obstacle to the Yoon administration’s efforts to improve relations with Japan.

Amid growing tensions in the region due to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, the importance of cooperation between Japan and South Korea is increasing. A system for the immediate sharing of North Korean missile-related information has just begun operating. Such a trend of cooperation must not be halted.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 22, 2023)