South Korea’s Supreme Court ruling last week ordering a major Japanese steelmaker to pay damages to South Koreans mobilized to wartime labor under Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula was easy to predict. Equally predictable is that a deterioration of relations between Japan and South Korea will follow. That future is not ordained, however. If Seoul recognizes the stakes and South Korean President Moon Jae-in prioritizes the future over the past, the national interest over domestic politics, and the national interest above settling scores, then this moment could be a step toward improved ties. But it isn’t likely.

That court decision was a long time coming. The case was first filed in a Korean court in 2005, after the plaintiffs lost a similar suit in Japan. South Korea’s Supreme Court in 2012 overturned lower court rulings that denied compensation and in a 2013 ruling the Seoul High Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. appealed to the Supreme Court the following year and the court took five years to render last week’s decision.

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