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South Korea court ruling reopens old wounds

Julian Ryall Tokyo
August 10, 2017

Japanese company Mitsubishi has been ordered by a South Korean court to compensate World War II forced laborers, stoking anger and concerns in Japan. Tokyo insists all claims were settled more than half-a-century ago.


A South Korean court this week ordered Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to compensate an elderly woman and the relative of another woman who died in 1944 for the years they spent as forced laborers in Japan during World War II.   

The Gwangju District Court ordered the Japanese giant to pay a total of 123.2 million won (91,898 euros) to 85-year-old Kim Yong-ok and a relative of the late Choi Jong-rye, who died while working in a Mitsubishi factory that collapsed in an earthquake.

Read: Mitsubishi unit apologizes to Chinese WWII forced laborers

Kim told the court that she had gone to Japan in the hope of "studying and earning money, but was deceived," Kyodo News reported. Instead of being able to study, however, she was sent to a factory in the city of Nagoya producing aircraft for the military and forced to work.

Contentious rulings

She subsequently suffered extensive burns during an Allied air raid on the factory, but returned to Korea after Japan's surrender in 1945.

The court ruling is the latest given by a series of South Korean courts since the Supreme Court ruled in May 2012 that anyone forced into work by the Japanese during Tokyo's colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula could sue to obtain wages that had not been paid to them and compensation for their hardships.

Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula from 1910-45, a time when Koreans were banned from using their own language in schools and forced to adopt Japanese names.

Read: Mitsubishi issues apology to US POWs used as wartime slave labor

Controversially, the court ruling declared that an agreement signed by the governments of South Korea and Japan in 1965 to end all postwar settlement claims did not apply. The result has been dozens of claims against Japanese firms and anger in Japan.

"It was an outrageous ruling by the Korean Supreme Court," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University. "This was all settled by the 1965 agreement on the normalization of bilateral relations, which was freely signed and ratified by both sides," he told DW. "Unfortunately, the Japanese foreign ministry has not taken a firm stance on this matter," he added.

Firmer stance demanded

"Japanese companies that have been the target of these law suits have asked the ministry for guidance and advice, but the response they have received is that the ministry cannot do anything and that they have to deal with the situation themselves.

"I believe the government should take a much firmer stance against the South Korean government," Shimada stressed, pointing out that it is not the first time that Seoul has gone back on a treaty with Japan.

Only this year, the government of President Moon Jae-in has set up a panel to re-examine an agreement signed in 2015 between Tokyo and Seoul in which Japan agreed to apologize and pay compensation to Korean women forced to serve as "comfort women" at brothels for the Japanese military during WWII.

Many in Japan have been angered that Seoul accepted the apology and compensation amounting to a billion yen (8.7 million euros) on behalf of the women, but the new government has now had a change of attitude.

Conservatives, such as Shimada, point out that that it will be impossible to sign treaties or agreements with South Korea in the future if it continues to renege on them.

He also believes that Seoul's about-face is in part aimed at shaming South Koreans who have cooperated or sided with Japan - such as former President Park Guen-hye, who signed the 2015 comfort women agreement but has since been ousted and charged with corruption. It is pointed out, for example, that her father, Park Chung-hee, took a Japanese name and served in the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII.

Internal struggle

"A movie was released in Korea this month, called 'The Battleship Island,' about Korean laborers during the war at a coal mine on an island off Nagasaki Prefecture who stage an uprising," Shimada said. "Of course, the Japanese are always depicted as bad people, but the worst are Koreans who are shown to be pro-Japanese.

"I sense there is an internal struggle going on in Korean society between those who want to work with Japan and those who oppose any sort of cooperation," he said.

Rah Jong-yil, a former South Korean ambassador to Tokyo, says legal actions by former forced laborers or their descendants is more symbolic than carried out in the hope of obtaining compensation.

Read: 156-year-old map may reignite Japan-South Korea island dispute

"In these cases, it is not really about money," he told DW. "They can be considered existential actions that these people take in order to do something - anything - about what they see as their unredeemed past.

"They feel they have suffered grave injustices in the past and they cannot let that pass without some sort of action or, at least, recognition that it happened," he noted. "I'm not at all optimistic that they will ever get anything out of the Japanese government or companies here; it's more about addressing their sense of terrible injustice."

A source of shame

Lawyers representing Mitsubishi Heavy Industries have appealed earlier rulings against it in previous cases and are expected to do the same on this occasion.

Logo - Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
Lawyers representing Mitsubishi Heavy Industries have appealed earlier rulings against it in previous cases and are expected to do the same on this occasion

While Mitsubishi has long been a household name, its wartime past has been a source of shame. The conglomerate, which today makes products ranging from cement to electronics, forced not just Koreans, but also people from other countries to work for it during WWII.

In 2015, Mitsubishi issued an apology to American prisoners of war who were pushed by the company into slave labor at the time. The acceptance of wrongdoing, though, did not include financial compensation.

Last year, a unit of Mitsubishi, Mitsubishi Materials Corp., concluded an agreement with groups representing more than 3,700 Chinese who were used by the firm as forced laborers in Japan. The deal was significant because it marked the first time a Japanese company decided to apologize and pay compensation to Chinese victims in a case involving a claim for damages already rejected by Japan's Supreme Court.

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies could not be held liable for compensation payments to Chinese, as the government in Beijing had renounced its citizens' claims to redress as part of the joint communique issued in 1972 when Japan and China normalized diplomatic relations.

But with the court rulings in South Korea, other Japanese companies that used forced laborers during World War II will be watching developments carefully.

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