Another thorn in Tokyo-Seoul ties

Over the past four months, the South Korean judiciary has handed down a series of rulings ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to Koreans who were forced to labor for them during World War II.

In July, the high courts in Seoul and Busan handed down such rulings against Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, respectively.

On Nov. 1, the district court in Gwangju ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay 680 million won (about ¥63 million) in compensation to a woman forced to labor at the company’s munitions factory in Nagoya and to four bereaved family members.

Now six cases over compensation for forced labor at Japanese companies during World War II are reportedly before South Korean courts, and more are expected. It is imperative that Tokyo and Seoul try to find ways to prevent the forced-labor issue from causing already strained bilateral relations to further deteriorate.

In June 1965, Japan and South Korea signed a basic relations treaty to normalize diplomatic ties. An agreement attached to the treaty states that individual citizens cannot file claims related to events that happened on or before Aug. 15, 1945, as Japan, under the treaty, provided $500 million in economic aid to South Korea.

On the strength of this agreement, the Japanese government and Japanese companies take the position that the issues related to South Korean forced laborers have been settled. Successive South Korean governments have taken the same position as the Japanese government on the wartime forced-labor issue, although Seoul takes the position that issues related to Korean women who were forced to provide sex to members of the Imperial Japanese armed forces and Korean victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings remain unsettled because these issues were not taken up during negotiations for the 1965 treaty. Nevertheless, the South Korean Supreme Court in May 2012 ruled that despite the agreement attached to the 1965 treaty, South Koreans still retain the right to file claims related to wartime forced labor.

This ruling led to the filing of a series of lawsuits against Japanese companies that forced Koreans to labor for them during World War II. If rulings for former South Korean forced laborers are finalized, there is the possibility that assets in South Korea owned by Japanese companies concerned will be seized. Such an outcome would greatly harm not only economic ties but also diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea.

First and foremost, Seoul should make serious efforts to eliminate the discrepancy between its traditional legal stance on the forced labor issue and the judiciary’s recent judgments. It should also review how the Park Chung-hee government utilized Japan’s $500 million in grants and loans, and determine whether it made sufficient efforts to compensate forced laborers.

For their part, Tokyo and Seoul should jointly strive to resolve this issue while maintaining the framework of the basic relations treaty and the attached agreement. Most importantly Tokyo and Seoul should endeavor to improve the overall bilateral relationship so that they can engage in dialogue in a constructive manner.