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How a World War II-Era Reparations Case Is Roiling Asia

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s top court on Tuesday stirred decades-old resentments that threaten to inflame relations with Japan, ordering a leading Japanese steelmaker to compensate Korean men forced to work as slave laborers during World War II.

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Choe Sang-Hun
Rick Gladstone, New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s top court on Tuesday stirred decades-old resentments that threaten to inflame relations with Japan, ordering a leading Japanese steelmaker to compensate Korean men forced to work as slave laborers during World War II.

The ruling, which the Japanese government quickly denounced, laid bare the resilient bitterness over Imperial Japan’s occupation of Asian neighbors even 73 years after the surrender to allied powers.

Despite postwar agreements that — in Japan’s view at least — settled claims for damages sought by the country’s former colonial conquests, debate over compensation and reparations has not subsided.

“We have a court saying a corporation is responsible for forced labor and that restitution must be paid, no matter what governments have agreed,” said Christopher Gerteis, a Japan expert and associate professor of history at SOAS University of London.

For descendants of the millions in Asia who were killed or brutalized in a war started by Imperial Japan, Gerteis said, the ruling is a stark reminder. “This was their holocaust,” he said.

Here is some background on the South Korean court’s ruling and what it could mean going forward:

What did the South Korean court decide?

It upheld a lower-court ruling in 2013 that Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal must pay 100 million won, or about $88,700, to each of four South Korean men who said they had been subjected to forced labor between 1941 and 1943. Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 until Japan’s surrender in 1945. The ruling could apply to pending cases involving other companies accused of using forced labor.

The court said there was nothing in postwar agreements or international law that prevented individual victims from seeking redress.

The Nippon Steel case has added resonance because the lawsuit was filed more than 20 years ago, and nearly all former forced laborers there who could have received compensation have since died. “I am the only one still alive to see this day come,” Lee Chun-shik, 94, the surviving plaintiff, told reporters outside the courthouse.

What are the broader implications?

The verdict could open the floodgates for other victims and their relatives to file lawsuits against an estimated 300 Japanese companies accused of using forced labor during the colonial era.

Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced to work for Japan’s war efforts in Japan, China and elsewhere, according to South Korean historians. While only a few thousand are still believed alive, their families can sue.

What does Japan say?

Japan insists that all matters concerning allegations of forced labor were settled under agreements that established diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1965.

Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal called the court’s decision “deeply regrettable” and said it contradicted the 1965 agreement not to raise claims that “arose during wartime.”

The company said in a statement that it would “carefully review the decision of the Supreme Court of Korea in considering its next steps, taking into account the Japanese government’s responses on this matter and other factors.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan called the ruling “an impossible judgment in light of international laws.”

What if the defendant defies the court?

The plaintiffs and their families could ask local courts to seize Nippon Steel’s assets in South Korea. Even without such a move, Nippon and other Japanese businesses may reduce operations in South Korea to insulate themselves.

Japanese business groups including the Japan Business Federation and the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the court’s decision could “damage the good economic relations between the two countries, as it may be an impediment on future investment and business in South Korea.”

What makes this more than a wartime legacy dispute?

It comes against the backdrop of other gnawing disagreements between Japan and South Korea, both important U.S. allies in Asia.

Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono, said the court’s ruling “overturns the legal basis of the friendly cooperative relationship between Japan and South Korea.”

Any impediment to close collaboration between the United States, Japan and South Korea is worrisome to American officials, who have sought to present a united front on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and on the growing reach of China’s power in Asia.

“The unfortunate thing is, who needs this kind of tension between Japan and South Korea at a moment when we’re in the middle of really difficult transitions and difficult diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula and more broadly with China?” said Daniel C. Sneider, a lecturer in East Asian studies at Stanford University.

Can Japan appeal to an international court?

Kono suggested that Japan might seek such an option — presumably referring to the International Court of Justice, the court established by the United Nations in 1945.

But South Korea indicated it wanted to avoid major diplomatic fallout, suggesting it will seek a compromise solution. Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said the government “respects” the ruling, promising efforts to “heal the pain of the victims as quickly and as much as possible.” At the same time, he said South Korea preferred a “future-oriented” relationship with Japan.

Some scholars have suggested that the two governments and the Japanese companies create a joint fund for the victims as a way to avoid more lawsuits and heightened diplomatic tensions.

“Both sides don’t want this to escalate into a full-blown diplomatic or history war,” said Lee Won-deok, an expert on Japan at Kookmin University in Seoul. Why did this court case last so long?

It started in 1997, when two former workers sued Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal in Japan. But courts there sided with the company and the Japanese government, saying the 1965 treaty had settled the issue.

In 2005, the plaintiffs joined two other former workers to take their case to South Korean courts. At first, judges supported the Japanese court decisions. But in 2012, the Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court, saying the Japanese rulings contravened the South Korean Constitution and international legal norms.

In 2013, a lower court in South Korea ordered the Japanese steel maker to pay compensation to the plaintiffs, three of whom have now died.

That same year, another court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay similar compensation to five former workers. In 2014, a third Japanese company, Nachi-Fujikoshi, was ordered to compensate 13 former workers who were still alive and the families of 18 others who had died.

All three Japanese companies appealed. While the Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday applied only to the Nippon Steel case, legal experts expected the court to rule similarly in the other two.

South Korean prosecutors are investigating allegations that the Supreme Court sought budgetary and other political favors from former President Park Geun-hye in return for delaying a ruling on the cases to save Park a diplomatic problem.

President Moon Jae-in, who replaced Park last year following her impeachment, has argued that the 1965 agreement should not prevent the victims from seeking redress. Moon has also criticized, but did not nullify, Park’s unpopular 2015 agreement with Japan to resolve a decades-old dispute over “comfort women,” Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese occupiers.

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