Court awards victims of forced labor

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Court awards victims of forced labor

The Seoul High Court made a landmark ruling yesterday, ordering for the first time the Japanese company New Nippon Steel Corporation to award 100 million won ($87,989) in damages to four Korean men for forced labor in Japan during its occupation of Korea.

The historic ruling may open the door for other Korean victims to receive compensation seven decades after their conscription.

“The company was one of the key munitions manufacturers during wartime,” the court said. “Along with the Japanese government, it committed crimes against humanity through its conscription of laborers for the war of aggression.”

The court also said it is against Korean constitutional values for the Japanese steel giant to deny its identity as the successor of the wartime enterprise Nippon Steel and it could not avoid responsibility by reasoning it is absolved from compensation to Korean victims.

Japan has long argued that a 1965 agreement between Japan and Korea absolves the Japanese government and wartime enterprises from compensating Korean victims.

“The amount of the compensation was decided by taking into account the seriousness and intention of the crime, the firm’s attitude of denying its responsibility for more than 50 years, as well as the national income level increase and the changed currency value,” the court said.

The 90-year-old Yeo Un-taek, one of the four former conscripts, hailed the ruling. “I was forced to go to Japan when I was 18 years old, and I escaped from the throes of death many times. I believe there will be many Koreans who have grudges just like me. I thank everyone who showed me support.”

Hailing it as a historic ruling, Yeo’s lawyer, Kim Mi-kyung, asked New Nippon Steel to respect the ruling and pay the compensation. The Korea Bar Association also welcomed the ruling yesterday and pressured the Japanese steelmaker to issue a heartfelt apology to the victims and pay the damages.

Yeo and three other men went to Japan between 1941 and 1943 after recruiters from Nippon Steel promised satisfactory food, wages, technical training and job stability. They, however, were forced to work with no freedom and no wages for years.

Yesterday’s ruling marked a significant turn of events in years of legal battles to win compensation. Their fight began in 1997 when Yeo and Shin Cheon-su filed a suit against Nippon Steel and the Japanese government with the Osaka District Court. They lost the trial and Japan’s highest court rejected the appeal in 2007.

They took the case to the Korean justice system by filing suits at the Seoul Central District Court in February 2005. Their cases were also rejected at the district and high courts, but the Supreme Court overturned the rulings in May last year and ordered the Seoul High Court to retry the case. In addition to Yeo and Shin, two more victims joined the lawsuit, although they had not filed suits with a Japanese court.

While the Japanese company is expected to appeal yesterday’s ruling to the Supreme Court, the Korean Bar Association said it will help the plaintiffs to win a negotiated compensation at an earlier date by provisionally seizing the properties of New Nippon Steel in Korea.

The company reportedly owns a 5 percent stake of Posco, and lawyers said it will review the law to see if the plaintiffs can provisionally seize the Japanese firm’s stake in Posco.

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