• Bloomberg


South Korean activists are complicating President Park Geun-hye’s tentative steps to improve ties with Japan by turning to the courts to seek recognition that they were forced during colonial times to work for Japanese companies, used as “comfort women” in military brothels or suffered after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

A South Korean court Wednesday ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to pay five South Koreans compensation for forced labor prior to Japan’s defeat in the war. A planned appeal could take the case to the South Korean Supreme Court, where two similar cases are pending.

Further muddying the issue is a threat this week by women forced into sexual servitude to file a suit against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the United States. Japan euphemistically refers to the women as the ianfu, or comfort women.

A separate South Korean court Friday turned down a suit by 79 Koreans who worked in Hiroshima during the war. The plaintiffs demanded that the South Korean government either pay them 10 million won (¥1.1 million) each or press Japan harder to compensate them for their suffering after the nuclear bomb was dropped.

Their leader, Sung Rak-koo, said he will appeal the decision.

The legal wrangling contrasts with recent efforts by the nations’ leaders to repair ties that have soured over the Takeshima/Dokdo territorial dispute and Park’s demands for further Japanese repentance over its wartime aggression.

Park, who has refused to hold a bilateral summit with Abe, joined him in calling Monday for a fresh start at ceremonies to mark 50 years of diplomatic ties. The spat is weighing on trade and strategic cooperation between the two U.S. allies.

“No start is new unless all sins are redressed,” said Kim Han-su, 97, an activist who was made to work at a Mitsubishi Heavy shipyard in Nagasaki from 1944 to 1945. “Park and Abe are hiding their heads in the sand if they are trying to bury historical wrongdoing,” said Kim, who isn’t one of the plaintiffs.

Tensions have contributed to a drop in trade and investment. Japan’s direct investment in South Korea fell to $2.5 billion last year from $4.5 billion in 2012 when then-President Lee Myung-bak visited the disputed islets.

Trade between the countries fell to $87 billion from $105 billion in the same period. Japanese companies don’t have a strong footprint in the South Korean market because of the dominance of the chaebol, or family run conglomerates, such as Hyundai Motor Group and Samsung Group.