National / Politics

Japanese former shipbuilder Hitachi Zosen loses wartime forced labor appeal in Seoul court


A Seoul court on Friday dismissed a Japanese industrial firm’s appeal against an order that it pay a South Korean man 50 million won ($45,000) for forced wartime labor, the latest in a series of court rulings to strain ties between the neighbors.

South Korea and its former colonial power Japan are both U.S. allies who have to contend with nuclear-armed North Korea and a rising China. But their relationship is soured by historical issues, including the wartime labor of Koreans at Japanese firms’ factories during World War II, and a territorial row over Seoul-controlled islets in the Sea of Japan claimed by Tokyo.

South Korean courts have made a series of orders against Japanese firms, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in this week said Tokyo should take a “more humble” attitude to history.

“It is extremely regrettable that President Moon tried to shift South Korea’s responsibility to Japan,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference on Friday.

Earlier this week, Tokyo requested that Seoul launch talks as Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. faced the imminent seizure of its assets in South Korea after refusing to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“We believe South Korea will, as a matter of course, comply with our request with sincerity,” Suga said.

The latest ruling came in the case of a 95-year-old South Korean man surnamed Lee, who claimed in 2012 that he had worked at a Hitachi Zosen shipyard and other locations with no pay for about a year.

Hitachi Zosen was formerly a shipbuilder associated with the giant Hitachi Group, but is now focused on environmental equipment and incinerators.

In 2014 a Seoul court ordered Hitachi Zosen to pay Lee 50 million won in unpaid wages and compensation for emotional distress.

The company appealed, but the Seoul High Court upheld the original ruling on Friday, saying the award was not excessively high.

Japan says the victims’ right to sue was extinguished by the 1965 treaty which saw Seoul and Tokyo restore diplomatic ties and included a reparation package of about $800 million in grants and cheap loans.

But South Korean courts made a series of recent rulings holding private Japanese businesses responsible for forced labor.

South Korea’s top court in November ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay 80 million to 150 million won to two separate groups of 11 people for forced wartime labor at its plants.

Another court earlier this month ordered the seizure of South Korean assets owned by Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal in a case involving former wartime laborers or their families, prompting condemnation by Tokyo.