SEOUL – The Seoul High Court on Wednesday ordered a Japanese steel maker to pay compensation to four South Koreans who were forced to work at the firm’s steel mills in Japan during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
In a victory for the plaintiffs, the court ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to pay 400 million won (around $352,000). The amount is equal to that sought by the four former forced laborers, one of whom is 90 years old.
Judge Yoon Seong-keun said the company committed “crimes against humanity” by joining hands with the Japanese government to mobilize forced labor for the sake of pursuing a war of aggression and “illegal” colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
The court said such aggression not only goes against international order and the South Korean Constitution but also the Japanese Constitution.
It is the first ruling by a South Korean court ordering a Japanese firm to pay compensation in a case involving postwar reparations.
Besides five similar cases currently before courts in South Korea, Wednesday’s ruling is likely to have a significant influence on other cases to be brought against Japanese enterprises.
Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal issued a statement calling it an “unjust decision that denies the Japan-South Korea compensation rights treaty concluded between states that completely and conclusively resolved the problem of conscripted labor.”
The company added that it intends to promptly file an appeal with the South Korean Supreme Court.
If the South Korean Supreme Court sides with the plaintiffs and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal refuses to pay the compensation, the plaintiffs can ask the court to seize the steel maker’s assets in South Korea.
The Japanese steel giant is known to have partnerships with South Korean steel giant Posco, of which it owns a stake of some 5 percent.
The plaintiff’s lawyer said, however, they expect Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal will pay the compensation once the case is finalized and are hoping they will not have to execute the asset-seizure.
In May last year, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that the right of former forced workers and their families to seek withheld wages and compensation was not invalidated by the 1965 treaty that normalized relations between South Korea and Japan.
That landmark decision reversed previous rulings by South Korean district and appellate courts, so the Supreme Court ordered the retrials of two cases involving Koreans forcibly taken to Japan to perform labor in factories in the waning years of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korea Peninsula. South Korea became a nation after 1945.
Wednesday’s ruling concerns four plaintiffs who were forced to work at a steel mill belonging to Japan Iron & Steel Co., which was later known as Nippon Steel Corp. until it merged with another steel maker last year to form Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the wartime compensation issue was already resolved under the bilateral accord.
“Our stance is that the issue of compensation rights between Japan and South Korea has been solved completely and finally” under the 1965 compensation rights treaty between Tokyo and Seoul, Suga said during a press conference.
Japan maintains that all individual compensation claims were settled with the 1965 treaty. Japanese courts have also dismissed claims from South Koreans.
Suga said the government is still examining the details of the ruling, adding: “If the ruling is not compatible (with Tokyo’s stance), we cannot accept it. In that case, we will cooperate with the company to take appropriate action based on the government’s stance.”
Yeon Un-taek, 90, and three other forced laborers filed a compensation suit in 1997 in Japan, but it was dismissed by the Supreme Court. They launched a separate action in South Korea in 2005.
A lower court in Busan is scheduled to hand down on July 30 its ruling on the other case sent back by the South Korean Supreme Court.