Forced laborers hope deliberate delay by court is over
The elation didn’t last. The Japanese companies appealed the decision in late 2013, and nothing has happened for over six years.
The original cases were filed by five Korean plaintiffs in local courts against Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation in 2000 and by four other plaintiffs against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 2005.
In both cases, a lower court and appeals court ruled against the plaintiffs, citing stipulations in the 1965 treaty that established diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan.
The courts, citing precedents in Japan, said the treaty signed by the Korean government under President Park Chung Hee relinquished reparations for individuals in return for a lump-sum settlement with Japan.
But the plaintiffs continued to appeal and in 2012, the Supreme Court made its momentous ruling by returning both cases to appellate courts, saying that individuals had a right to seek compensation for their suffering even if the state had relinquished its right to do so. Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel appealed the decision in 2013, and the lawsuits ended up back in the Supreme Court.
Only last month did the Supreme Court resume the case by assigning it to a full bench trial with Justice Kim So-young as its chief judge. In the meantime, seven of the nine original plaintiffs have died.
The reason for the inordinate delay was revealed on Aug. 16, when Kim Ki-choon, ex-chief of staff to former President Park Geun-hye, told prosecutors that she ordered him to delay the trial by leaning on the court.
Kim says that he and then-Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se secretly met Cha Han-sung, head of the National Court Administration, the administrative office of the Supreme Court, and asked the judiciary to delay proceedings on the lawsuits based on the president’s direction. Yun described the negative diplomatic repercussions that would ensue if the court ruled in favor of the victims.
The Supreme Court’s chief justice Yang Sung-tae helped stall deliberations in an attempt to curry favor with the president, based on National Court Administration documents recently disclosed.
Nobody was more shocked that the trial had been delayed on purpose ? and by order of the president herself ? than the plaintiffs in the case and the thousands of other victims of forced labor under Japanese rule.
According to the Foundation to Support Victims of Forced Labor by Japan, a public agency established to help the victims of forced labor, out of Korea’s population of around 26 million in the later years of Japan’s colonial rule over the country from 1910 to 1945, around 230,000 were subjected to forced labor. Those forced into work by Japanese authorities served as laborers, soldiers and military support personnel.
Over 73 years after Korea’s liberation, only around 3,500 victims of forced labor are still alive, most of whom are in their 90s. Many cannot help but feel frustration at the lack of action six years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of their cause.
Park Jae-hoon, 72, is the son of Park Chang-hwan, one of the original five plaintiffs who sued Mitsubishi in 1995. The older Park died in 2001, long before the Supreme Court in Korea acknowledged his right to receive compensation from the Japanese. His son has carried on the lawsuit in his stead, as have the families of the other four plaintiffs who also passed away.
“It has been 23 years since my father filed a lawsuit against Mitsubishi in Japan in 1995, and 18 years since the suit was filed in Korea in 2000,” Park said. “But I feel betrayed by the government and the Supreme Court for wasting six years by delaying the trial since 2012.
Park Chang-hwan was a newlywed farmer in Korea when he was detained by a Japanese police officer and sent to Japan against his will. From September 1944, he toiled at a metal casting factory owned by Mitsubishi in Hiroshima. On Aug. 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Park was severely injured in his jaw by a flying piece of steel.
His first suit against Mitsubishi in 1995 in a Japanese court was dismissed in March 1999. After appealing, the Supreme Court of Japan ruled in November 2007 that Park should receive compensation from the company for unpaid wages and negligence after suffering injuries from the atomic bombing, but was not acknowledged as a victim of forced mobilization.
Park tried to make his case against Mitsubishi again in a local court in Busan along with four other plaintiffs in May 2000, but the case was dismissed.
“Though all of the original plaintiffs in the Mitsubishi trial have now passed on,” said his son, “I still hope the court can finalize this trial once and for all.”
Another victim, Yang Geum-duk, 89, now lives in Gwangju. In the last year of elementary school, a Japanese headmaster tricked her into signing up for the Korean Women’s Volunteer Labor Corps by saying she would earn a lot of money and be able to attend middle school in Japan.
At the age of 15, she was sent to Mitsubishi’s aircraft factory in Nagoya in May 1944, where she worked ten hours a day without pay.
She was injured on her abdomen that December, when a massive earthquake hit southern Japan and killed six out of the 24 Korean girls that came to work with her from the Jeolla region.
After Korea’s liberation on Aug. 15, 1945, Yang demanded payment for her labor from Mitsubishi, but the company deferred her request, saying it would send the money afterwards to her address in Korea.
“At school they told us that the Japanese are an honest people who always keep their promises,” Yang said. “But 73 years have passed and I still have not received the payment owed to me from Mitsubishi.”
Yang sued the company and the Japanese government in the Nagoya Regional Court in March 1999, but the case was dismissed by the Japanese Supreme Court in 2008. In 2009, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare gave Yang a measly 99 yen - around 90 U.S. cents - as a pension payment for her labor in the 1940s.
Angered by this, Yang sued Mitsubishi in Korea in October 2012, encouraged by the May 2012 ruling in the victims’ favor. She won her first trial as well as a subsequent appeal, but a second appeal by Mitsubishi to the Supreme Court in July 2015 was delayed along with the other cases.
“How can the Korean government, which should have led the efforts to get an apology and compensation from Japan for the abduction and pain inflicted on young girls, delay the trial like this?” said Yang. “My body aches and I will die of old age while waiting for the verdict to come out.”
A third victim, Seo Young-hyun, 93, grew up in Changnyeong, South Gyeongsang, and was forced to work at a coal mine in Shimonoseki at the age of 18. He says he witnessed Korean laborers being beaten to death or falling victim to workplace accidents countless times. The Japanese overseers just reported incidents as accidents, he said. “I ran away after four months, knowing that I would die either way,” he recalled.
“People who have suffered under forced labor were called charlatans even in Korea,” Seo said. “I just hope the Supreme Court rules on the case definitively before I die.”
With victims succumbing one by one to old age, the survivors and their families are impatient and exasperated.
Even though the trial has now been resumed, speed is not the Supreme Court’s priority. In fact, analysts say that in contrast to the four-person small bench that made the 2012 ruling, a full bench is likely to take longer to make a decision.
Park Jin-woong, a spokesman for the Supreme Court, denied this would be the case, saying the size of the bench has no bearing on how long a decision will take. They will rule on the matter as soon as an agreement is made internally, he said.
The plaintiffs and their legal representatives are not convinced.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Choi Bong-tae, the lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in their successful May 2012 trial. He implored the Supreme Court under its new chief Kim Myeong-su to reach a speedy decision.
A civic group representing the victims is set to hold a ten-thousand person rally in front of the Supreme Court building in southern Seoul next Tuesday to demand the court to decide on the case.
Yet the diplomatic implications of the trial remain an important issue. When the court ruled in the victims’ favor in 2012, the Park Geun-hye administration’s Foreign Ministry argued that the case would create a rift in Korea-Japan relations. Japanese companies made their sentiments known through the Keidanren, the Japan Federation of Economic Organizations, saying that compensating each victim 100 million won (around $90,000) could cost anywhere from 23 trillion won ($20.5 billion) to several hundred trillion won. Some Japanese companies have threatened to pull investments from Korea if the courts tried to enforce their compensation rulings by freezing their corporate assets in Korea.
For this reason, some analysts say that the Supreme Court may find it difficult to rule as it did in 2012 even under a progressive-minded chief justice like Kim Myeong-su, who was appointed by President Moon Jae-in last year.
The highest court in the country is torn between upholding the rights of forced labor victims and preserving good relations between Korea and Japan.
Some experts suggest that an alternative to a judicial solution should be considered. Given that the Korean government itself is not free from blame in relinquishing the rights to seek compensation from Japan for individual victims in 1965, some have suggested compensating victims through a joint fund comprised of the Korean and Japanese governments and the sued Japanese companies.
BY CHANG SE-JEONG, SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]