Work out a sensible solutionA group of Japanese business associations have issued a joint statement expressing concern about Korean court rulings ordering that compensation is to be given to Korean workers who were conscripted to Japanese manufacturers during World War II. The Keidanren, or the Japan Business Federation, together with other groups warned in its statement that the court ruling would hamper investment and business in Korea because Japan has “fully and conclusively” settled all compensation issues and paid for its colonial rule when it signed a treaty with the South Korean government in 1965 to normalize diplomatic relations.
Local Korean courts have been ruling in favor of the plaintiffs seeking compensation for forced labor since Korea’s Supreme Court ruled last year that the 1965 settlement leaves room for reinterpretation, saying individual compensation is not covered by the accord between the two governments. In July, the Seoul High Court ordered Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal to pay four of its former workers 100 million won ($94,000) each. Another high court in Busan ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay 80 million won to the families of its former Korean employees. Earlier this month, the Gwangju District Court handed down a similar ruling to plaintiffs against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. If those rulings are upheld by the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs could try to have the court seize assets of the sued companies in South Korea.
Still it is not right for the business sector to protest together ahead of a final review by the Supreme Court. Its move could affect the judgment of the Korean judiciary and derail Korea-Japan relations, which have long held that business and political issues over historical debates be kept separate.
Japan has been protesting the Korean court rulings run counter to intergovernmental accord, but it cannot talk about justice considering the pain and hardship it imposed on Korea through its colonial rule. Japanese companies refusing to pay unpaid wages and compensation, despite earning huge wealth through forced labor because of an intergovernmental treaty is preposterous. The Korean government, too, is accountable for signing a treaty without seeking the approval of the victims. Korea has been able to rebuild its economy after the war through financial aid and cooperation from Japan, but that is little comfort to war victims.
The Korean government recognizes more than 200,000 people as victims of wartime forced labor. They could file lawsuits as well if the Supreme Court upholds those rulings.
German companies have provided separate compensation to foreign victims who were forced to labor for them under Nazi rule. Japanese companies that built their wealth from forced labor and Korean companies that benefited from aid from Japan could consider creating a joint fund to compensate victims. Instead of leaving everything to the judiciary, the governments of the two countries should try to find a reasonable compromise.