Japan rejects top court’s forced labor verdict

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Japan rejects top court’s forced labor verdict

Korea’s top court’s decision Tuesday ordering a Japanese steel company to pay compensation to Korean forced laborers is expected to bring about diplomatic repercussions, especially because the ruling questions the premise of the 1965 Seoul-Tokyo treaty that normalized bilateral ties.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono expressed his government’s “concern” over the ruling in a phone conversation with Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha Wednesday morning.

The previous day, the Korean Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling and ordered Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to pay 100 million won ($87,670) in compensation to each of four Korean victims of forced labor during Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Kang said that the Korean government will “respect” the ruling and meticulously review matters related to it to “draw up next steps,” said Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement. On the phone call, the two ministers underscored the need “to advance the bilateral relations in a future-oriented way” - a code word for not dwelling on thorny historical issues from the past.

The Supreme Court ruling has reopened the question of whether the 1965 Korea-Japan Claims Agreement settled all issues of compensation to victims of colonial rule once and for all, including individuals’ rights to file claims for damages. Tokyo claims that the 1965 agreement settled all compensation matters, but Korea’s top court now disputes this.

In the agreement, Tokyo provided an economic cooperation fund - $500 million in economic grants and loans given by Japan to the Korean government. But because of the political circumstances of the negotiations, the 1965 treaty has long been criticized by scholars and activists for failing to address major issues such as Japan’s liability for colonial rule.

On Tuesday, the top court said that, during the negotiations for the 1965 agreement, “the Japanese government failed to acknowledge the illegality of its colonial rule and rejected in principle legal compensation for victims of forced labor.” Based on this premise, it concluded that the victims’ rights to individual compensation have not expired.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday effectively rejected the Korean Supreme Court decision, calling it “not acceptable according to international law,” and emphasized that compensation had been completely resolved through the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations.

The conscripted laborers case has dragged on in Korean courts for over 13 years, after it was first filed in February 2005, and only one of the four original plaintiffs remains alive.

In the Tuesday ruling, Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su further said that the 1965 agreement “was not a negotiation to compensate for Japan’s illegal colonial rule but was a political agreement between Korea and Japan based on the San Francisco Treaty” of 1951 between Japan and allied countries after World War II.

Korea’s five major political parties - in a rare moment of unity - immediately welcomed the Supreme Court ruling on the conscripted workers. Likewise, hundreds of civic activists calling for an apology from Japan for wartime sexual slavery also welcomed the verdict in a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in central Seoul Wednesday.

Japanese Foreign Minister Kono lodged a complaint about the verdict with Korea’s Ambassador to Japan Lee Su-hoon Tuesday in Tokyo. Kono conveyed that the ruling “fundamentally overturned the legal basis for bilateral friendship since the normalization of ties in 1965.” Japan’s Foreign Ministry said Japan will examine all possible options, including international arbitration.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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