Korean Wartime Labor Ruling against Nippon Steel Finalized

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
South Korea’s Supreme Court

SEOUL/TOKYO (Jiji Press) — South Korea’s Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed an appeal by Nippon Steel Corp. against a lower court ruling that ordered the Japanese firm to pay compensation over wartime labor.

The ruling finding the steelmaker liable for compensation was thus finalized.

The damages lawsuit was filed by South Koreans, including bereaved relatives of people who claimed to have been forced to work at a Nippon Steel plant in Japan during World War II.

The Japanese government takes the position that the issue of wartime labor was resolved by the 1965 Japan-South Korea agreement on property and claims.

The current administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol aims to settle the issue by having a government-affiliated foundation pay compensation on behalf of Japanese companies involved.

The top court reconfirmed that the statute of limitations for the rights to filing damages lawsuits over wartime labor began in October 2018, when a ruling recognizing a Japanese company liability for compensation was finalized by the Supreme Court for the first time.

The 2018 ruling ordered Nippon Steel, then Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp., to pay compensation.

In December last year, the top court rejected appeals filed by Japanese companies in five similar wartime labor damages lawsuits, finalizing the verdicts against the firms.

Nippon Steel said that Thursday’s ruling by the South Korean top court is “extremely regrettable” as it goes against the 1965 agreement between the two countries.

The ruling is “a clear violation” of the bilateral agreement, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi told a press conference in Tokyo on the day, adding that the verdict is “very regrettable and is never acceptable.” Tokyo has lodged a protest with the South Korean side, according to the top government spokesman.

Hiroyuki Namazu, director-general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, made a similar protest to Kim Jang-hyun, deputy chief of mission at the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo.

Also on Thursday, an attorney for a former South Korean wartime laborer in a different damages lawsuit, filed against Hitachi Zosen Corp., revealed that the plaintiff side sought legal approval Wednesday for the seizure of funds the major Japanese heavy machinery maker had deposited with a court.

In the lawsuit, a ruling ordering Hitachi Zosen to pay 50 million won in compensation was finalized by South Korea’s Supreme Court on Dec. 28, 2023.

In order to prevent its assets in South Korea from being forcibly confiscated, the company had deposited 60 million won with a court, according to the plaintiff’s attorney. The procedure for the plaintiff to seize the money is expected to take two to three months, the attorney said.

There has been no case in which funds of any Japanese company targeted in a series of damages lawsuits filed over wartime labor were transferred to a South Korean plaintiff, even if indirectly.

None of the Japanese companies have paid or agreed to pay compensation.