SEOUL – A lawyer for South Korean plaintiffs who won a wartime forced labor case against Japanese steel-maker Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. last year indicated Thursday they will soon begin the process of liquidating the company’s seized assets, possibly by the end of February, to secure compensation if it continues refusing to hold talks with them.
The lawyer also indicated that plaintiffs who recently won similar cases against Japanese machinery manufacturer Nachi-Fujikoshi Corp. may file for seizure of the company’s assets as a provisional measure.
The plaintiffs’ representatives plan to visit the head offices of Nippon Steel, Nachi-Fujikoshi and another company in Tokyo on Friday to press for negotiations before taking the actions.
The Japanese government takes the position that the issue of claims arising from Japan’s 1910 to 1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula has been settled under a bilateral accord signed alongside a 1965 treaty that established diplomatic ties.
The government has called on Japanese firms not to agree to compensate the plaintiffs, in addition to requesting that Seoul come up with measures to protect the business activities of Japanese companies in South Korea.
It has also asked South Korea to hold talks but South Korea has not made its stance clear over the proposed talks.
On Thursday, Japan’s top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga expressed grave concerns on the plan to liquidate the seized assets of the Japanese steel-maker.
“We take the situation extremely seriously as the plaintiffs’ move advances while the South Korean government has still not taken concrete steps to correct the state of violating the bilateral accord,” Suga said at a news conference in Tokyo.
South Korean courts have in recent months awarded compensation to plaintiffs in wartime labor cases involving Japanese firms. In Nippon Steel’s case, the Supreme Court in October upheld a lower court ruling that ordered the company to pay four South Koreans 100 million won ($89,000) each.
Following the top court ruling, the plaintiffs in the Nippon Steel case moved to seize the company’s assets in South Korea, leading a court to approve the seizure of shares it held in a joint venture with South Korean steel-maker POSCO.
After appeals court rulings against it, Nachi-Fujikoshi appealed them to the Supreme Court, where the cases are pending. But now that precedents have been clearly set, the rulings are unlikely to be overturned by the top court.
Kim Se-eun, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, alluded to the planned measures at a rally organized by civic groups that took place in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
She told reporters that the plaintiffs in Nippon Steel’s case feel they have no choice but to act after months had passed with nothing done since the ruling.
“The plaintiffs are still waiting, and as they are really old, they could become unhealthy sooner or later,” the lawyer said, adding that if Nippon Steel refuses to engage in talks, “we will start taking steps as soon as we come back.”
At the gathering, participants called on Nippon Steel and other companies that have lost in conscripted labor cases to comply with the rulings and compensate plaintiffs.
The rulings and subsequent developments have chilled ties between Japan and South Korea.
Speculation is rife that if Nippon Steel’s seized assets are liquidated, Japan may retaliate, such as by imposing higher tariffs on imports from South Korea.