Colonial era conscripts win damages

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Colonial era conscripts win damages

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Yoon Gyeong-nam, a family member of a conscripted worker, exits the Supreme Court yesterday after the court ruled that Japanese companies should pay unpaid wages due and compensation to conscripted Korean workers. By Kim Do-hoon


In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court yesterday ruled in favor of eight Korean men who for 17 years have sought compensation from Japanese companies that used them as forced laborers in Japan during its colonial rule occupation of the Korean Peninsula.

Overturning the lower court rulings against the Korean victims of the colonial conscription, the highest court yesterday said two Japanese companies that used the plaintiffs as forced laborers are still responsible for paying them wages and damages. The Supreme Court sent the cases back to the high courts for retrials, opening the door for the victims to receive compensation more than 68 years after their conscription.

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Yesterday’s ruling was a precedent. It was the first time Korean conscription victims won a court battle against their Japanese employers.

In May 2000, six men including 86-year-old Lee Geun-mok filed suits against Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries claiming a total of 606 million won ($513,000) in past wages and damages for their exposure to radiation from the atomic bombing while working in the Hiroshima shipyard of the company. They lost their initial trial at the Busan District Court and an appeal at the Busan High Court.

Another two men including 88-year-old Yeo Un-taek filed separate but similar suits at the Seoul Central District Court in February 2005 against Nippon Steel Corporation, demanding overdue wages and compensation for their forced labor. Their cases were also rejected at the district and high courts.

The former conscripts have also filed unsuccessful suits in Japan. The suit against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was filed at the Hiroshima District Court in 1995 and the Japanese Supreme Court finally killed it in 2003. Another suit against Nippon Steel and the Japanese government was filed in 1997 with the Osaka District Court, and Japan’s highest court turned it down in 2007.

The Supreme Court of Korea, however, ruled differently yesterday. Overturning the earlier acquittals of the Japanese business giants by the lower courts, the country’s highest court directly challenged Japan’s long-time argument that the 1965 Agreement between Japan and the Republic of Korea Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation absolves the Japanese government and wartime enterprises from compensating Korean victims.

“The plaintiffs had filed same suits in Japan, but the Japanese courts have struck all of them down,” the Supreme Court said yesterday. “The Supreme Court of Japan ruled on the ground that Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula and the Korean people was legitimate. The ruling included that it was legitimate to apply the colonial government’s National General Mobilization Act and the conscription order over the peninsula and the plaintiffs. But the ruling directly contradicts a key value of the Republic of Korea’s constitution that conscription during the Japanese colonial period was illegal. Therefore, the ruling has no validity.”

The Supreme Court also ruled that the plaintiffs’ rights to claim damages from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel have not expired because of the 1965 Korea-Japan treaty. Stressing that the two companies are legally the same entities of their wartime predecessors, the Supreme Court turned down the two companies’ argument that the plaintiffs’ right to claim has expired because it would be in breach of the bona fide principle.

“Words cannot describe my joy,” said Park Jae-hun, a 66-year-old son of the late Park Chang-hwan, one of the Mitsubishi conscripts. “But I feel extremely sad thinking about my father because he passed away before seeing this outcome.”

As the Supreme Court sent the two cases back to the Seoul and Busan high courts, the appeals courts will recalculate the amounts of compensation and send it to the Supreme Court to finalize the rulings. If Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel Corporation fail to pay the workers as stated in the rulings, Korean courts can forcibly seizure their assets in Korea and overseas.


By Ser Myo-ja, Lee Dong-hyun [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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