The buck stops there
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The controversy over the rulings is intense, and understandably so. This column is not about what’s right or wrong about the 2018 Supreme Court ruling that ordered compensation for wartime forced labor by Japanese companies, or the ruling by the Seoul Central District Court last week that denied Korea’s forced laborers the right to claim damages from Japan. Frankly, I am not in a position to say that both rulings are right as a legendary prime minister of the Joseon Dynasty did five centuries ago. Nor do I have any legal authority to clear up the controversy as I am not an expert in laws.
However, I can say one thing for sure. Rep. Song Young-gil, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) leader and a former lawyer, and Choo Mi-ae, a former justice minister and judge, reactivated the pro-Japan frame by asking if the recent ruling was made by a “judge of the Japanese Government General of Korea.” A number of Koreans even petitioned the Blue House to impeach the judge who made the ruling in favor of Japan. That is obviously a personal attack and a threat to the independence of the judiciary.
What is obvious is that the people complaining about the recent ruling are not respecting the views of the president himself. President Moon Jae-in said after the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling ordering compensation for the wartime forced labor by Japan that a court ruling should be respected. He should tell the DP and his supporters to respect all court rulings, assuming he is not “selectively respecting” only rulings that please him.
Socrates said, “The law is harsh but it is the law.” Whether you like it or not, a ruling is a ruling. All decisions should be respected. That’s the rule of law. But sometimes, rulings contradict each other. When you are tempted to respect rulings selectively, the rule of law crumbles.
Then how can we solve this problem? The latest ruling teaches us that the forced labor issue cannot be resolved with respect for the courts alone. The latest ruling shows that the 2018 Supreme Court decision was not a definite truth all judges agree to. There are judges, lawyers and legal scholars who believe the recent trial ruling was more just than the Supreme Court ruling in a legalistic sense. Such a view is being shared by many.
In other words, there was a possibility that a court would deliver a ruling that contradicted the 2018 Supreme Court decision from the beginning — and it can happen again. The recent ruling can be reversed in the Supreme Court once again. Given dozens of similar suits filed by other relatives of forced labor victims, contradictory rulings could be reached at any time.
Of course, legal confusion can be cleared if the president chooses to wait until the Supreme Court delivers final rulings for all similar lawsuits, and tells all plaintiffs to respect the rulings of the top court. But what about the inevitable legal protraction to give aid to the victims? That also goes against a “victim-centered legal process” professed by Moon. It took 13 years before the Supreme Court delivered its ruling. But it will take another long span of time for the government to complete compulsory execution and compensation for the plaintiffs.
If a case closed with a final ruling takes such a long time to come to its real end, how can the government help the families who have just started or are preparing suits? What about the diplomatic discord with Japan that will be nearly irreconcilable in the meantime? Moreover, the Japanese government will surely claim that it cannot accept any Supreme Court rulings, citing the dramatic reversal of its ruling in the first trial by the Seoul Central District Court.
There are controversies that can be cleared in the three-tier system of courts, but some can not. The forced labor issue may be one of the latter. It should have been addressed aggressively through politics and diplomacy from the start. But the Moon administration neglected its duty by having the judiciary deal with it. In fact, the solution is already obvious. Through legislation of a special law, victims can be helped quickly and uniformly. The government can prepare the budget needed to relieve their pain.
What position Japan will take and how it will participate in the process is a diplomatic issue. Even if all involved parties are not satisfied, politics basically is the process of finding the common denominator. It is up to the head of state to frankly discuss shortcomings and ask the other party to agree to choose the alternative. Politics can address what cannot be resolved by the judiciary. The president is at the height of politics.