Court dismisses lawsuits by forced labor victims seeking compensation
A local court dismissed Wednesday a lawsuit filed by a 104-year-old victim of Japan's wartime forced labor seeking compensation from his former employer.
The Seoul Central District Court's Judge Lee Baek-gyu on Wednesday dismissed the damage lawsuit filed by Kim Han-su to seek compensation from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. While the court did not specify its reason, it appeared that the dismissal was based on the grounds that the lawsuit was filed after the deadline imposed by the statute of limitations.
Kim, born in 1918 in Hwanghae Province, was conscripted as a laborer by the colonial government of Japan in 1944. He was forced to work at Mitsubishi's Nagasaki Shipyard. When the United States detonated an autonomic bomb over Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, Kim worked at a factory just 3 kilometers (2 miles) away from the drop zone and suffered from radiation exposure. He returned to Korea in October that year.
In April 2019, Kim filed the damage suit against Mitsubishi, seeking 100 million won ($83,500) in compensation. "I still feel heartbroken when I think about the painful time when I was treated worse than an animal," Kim said at the time.
Kim, however, lost his legal battle on Wednesday.
Judge Lee also dismissed Wednesday a similar but separate case filed by the surviving family of another forced laborer. The children of the victim, only identified by his surname Park, filed the damage suit in April 2019 against Kumagai Gumi, a construction company, for their deceased father's forced labor. Park died during the conscription, and his surviving children sought 100 million won from the Japanese company.
Lawyer Kim Sung-ju, who represented both plaintiffs, strongly protested the court's decision to dismiss the lawsuits on the ground that they were filed after the three-year deadline imposed by the statute of limitations. He said he will appeal both rulings.
According to the Civil Act, victims have three years to file their damage suits. "The right to claim for damages resulting from an unlawful act shall lapse by prescription if not exercised within three years commencing from the date on which the injured party or his agent by law becomes aware of such damage and of the identity of the person who caused it," said Article 766 of the law.
Controversy, however, lingers as to when the three-year period starts. While the victims argue that the period starts from a Supreme Court's ruling in 2018, judges often reference a 2012 ruling.
In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court in May 2012 ruled in favor of eight Korean forced labor victims who for 17 years had sought compensation from Japanese companies. Overturning the lower court rulings against the colonial conscription victims, the highest court said two Japanese companies that used the plaintiffs as forced laborers are still responsible for paying them wages and damages.
At the time, the Supreme Court directly challenged Japan's long-time argument that the 1965 claims settlement agreement between Seoul and Tokyo absolves the Japanese government and wartime enterprises from compensating Korean victims.
The court, then, sent the cases back to the high courts for retrial, opening the door for the victims to receive compensation more than 68 years after their conscription. Their retrials were finalized in 2018 as the Supreme Court concluded that the individuals' right to file claims for damages has not expired.
Following the 2018 decision, more forced labor victims filed damage lawsuits, but Japanese companies argued that the three-year period started in 2012. Local courts have rendered conflicting decisions.
In December 2018, the Gwangju High Court ruled that the victims should be compensated, noting that the three-year period starts with the Supreme Court ruling earlier that year.
The Seoul Central District Court, however, ruled against two similar cases last year on the grounds that their deadline expired. The same court also ruled against five plaintiffs earlier this month.
"It was not legally clear until the 2018 Supreme Court ruling whether or not the plaintiffs could file damage suits against Japanese companies," lawyer Kim said. "Victims are either very old or already deceased, and most of them could have not been immediately aware of their right."
BY SER MYO-JA [firstname.lastname@example.org]