World News

Court Ruling on Mitsubishi Irks Japan

Posted November 29, 2018 7:39 p.m. EST
Updated November 29, 2018 7:41 p.m. EST

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan on Thursday to compensate South Koreans forced to work in its factories during World War II, the second such ruling in a month that has bedeviled relations between the two key U.S. allies in Asia.

The top court upheld a lower-court ruling that ordered Mitsubishi to pay each of five women 100 million won to 150 million won, or about $89,000 to $133,000. In a separate ruling Thursday, the court also ordered Mitsubishi to pay 80 million won to each of six men who said they were subject to forced labor at a Mitsubishi shipyard and machine tool factory in 1944.

Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 until Japan’s 1945 surrender in World War II, and in the decades since, South Korea and Japan have been locked in highly sensitive territorial and other disputes rooted in that colonial era.

The rulings Thursday had been expected since the Supreme Court issued a landmark verdict on Oct. 30 finding Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal guilty of exploiting forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule. In that case, the court ordered the company to pay $88,700 in compensation to each of four South Korean victims.

Japan insists that all matters concerning allegations of forced labor were settled under agreements that established bilateral diplomatic ties in 1965. In its October verdict, however, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled for the first time that those deals should not impede individual victims’ rights to seek redress. It reaffirmed its opinion through its decisions Thursday.

If a Japanese company convicted in the South Korean court refuses to pay the compensation, the plaintiffs and their families could ask local courts to seize the company’s assets in South Korea.

Mitsubishi called the verdict “deeply regrettable.” Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono, issued a statement calling the court’s decisions “totally unacceptable.”

“This fundamentally overturns the legal basis for friendly ties between Japan and South Korea,” Kono said.

Japan and the companies involved have warned that they will take the cases to international courts unless the South Korean government intervenes. South Korea has indicated that it wants to avoid major diplomatic fallout, suggesting it will seek a compromise.

Hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced to work for Japan’s war efforts in Japan, China and elsewhere, according to South Korean historians. Several thousand are still believed to be alive, and the recent Supreme Court rulings could open the floodgates for other victims and their families to file class-action lawsuits against 300 Japanese companies still in operation that are believed to have used forced labor.

The South Korean victims first sued Japanese companies in the 1990s. But courts in Japan sided with the companies and the Japanese government, saying the 1965 treaty had settled the issue. So the victims took their case to South Korean courts.

At first, local judges in South Korea supported the Japanese court rulings. But in 2012, its Supreme Court sent the first of those cases — the ones against Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal — back to a lower court, saying the Japanese court rulings went against South Korea’s Constitution and international legal norms.

Since then, lower courts have changed their opinions, awarding compensation to the victims. But the Japanese companies appealed, ultimately landing the cases in the Supreme Court.

On Thursday, Kim Seong-ju, 90, one of the victims awarded money, showed up for the ruling with relatives of other victims carrying a banner that said: “Mitsubishi Heavy Industries must apologize and compensate!”

“I have waited all my life for this moment to come,” Kim told reporters outside the courthouse, fighting back tears.

Washington has repeatedly urged Japan and South Korea to overcome their historical differences so they can work better together with the United States to end North Korea’s nuclear threat and confront China’s growing influence in the region.

But President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has argued that the 1965 agreement should not prevent the victims of the Japan’s colonial rule from seeking redress. This month, his government decided to shut down a Japanese-funded foundation created to help Korean women who were forced to work in brothels for Japan’s military during World War II, essentially voiding a 2015 agreement between the countries that was supposed to put the painful “comfort women” issue to rest.