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S Korea court orders seizure of Mitsubishi assets over forced labour

The logo of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is seen at the company's news conference in Tokyo. Reuters File
The logo of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is seen at the company's news conference in Tokyo. Reuters File

SEOUL: A South Korean court has ordered the seizure of Mitsubishi's assets in the country over the Japanese industrial giant's use of forced labour during World War II, reports said Thursday.

Japan and South Korea are both democracies, market economies and US allies, but their relationship has been strained for decades as a result of Tokyo's brutal 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.

Around 780,000 Koreans were conscripted into forced labour by Japan during the 35-year occupation, according to data from Seoul, not including women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops.

In a landmark ruling in 2018, the Supreme Court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay compensations to a handful of the victims, but the Japanese firm refused to follow the verdict.

And earlier this month, the surviving families of four of the victims asked the court to seize Mitsubishi's bonds in South Korea, Yonhap news agency reported.

The Anyang branch of Suwon District Court ordered the seizure of around 850 million won (US$725,000) worth of bonds the Japanese firm owns in LS Mtron, a South Korean industrial machinery manufacturer, according to the report.

The amount covers around 80 to 150 million won ordered to be provided to each of the victims and covers losses from the delay of payment.

"We request Mitsubishi to admit the historical fact and apologise and deliver compensation to the victims," Yonhap cited the law firm representing the plaintiffs as saying.

"If Mitsubishi continues to refuse to follow court orders, we will collect its bonds from LS Mtron based on the collection order," it added.

Japan says the victims' right to sue had been extinguished by the 1965 treaty which saw Seoul and Tokyo restore diplomatic ties and included a reparation package of about $800 million in grants and cheap loans.

Meanwhile, the Suwon District Court late on Wednesday approved the seizure, banning the Korean company from paying the money to Mitsubishi Heavy and allowing the victims to collect it.

The verdict drew a strong rebuke from Japan, with the top government spokesman calling for Seoul to act to resolve the dispute.

"If it's liquidated, that would push Japan-South Korea relations into a serious situation. It must be avoided," Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters. "We want to urge South Korea even more strongly to present a solution that is acceptable to Japan."

South Korea's foreign ministry said it has been in talks with Japan to find a "reasonable solution" while considering how the victims can exercise their legal rights, as well as diplomatic relations.

A Mitsubishi Heavy spokesperson declined to comment, saying the company was trying to confirm details on the ruling.

Lawyers for the victims said if the Japanese company continues refusing to implement the order, they would directly collect the funds from the Korean company, LS Mtron Ltd.

"The victims and their families demand Mitsubishi make compensation in line with the ruling, acknowledge historical facts and provide an apology," the lawyers said in a statement, adding their clients are "open to consultations on this."

An official at LS Mtron, a machinery subsidiary of LS Corp, said it shares the pain suffered by the victims and will follow the court decision but needs to verify details.

Last month, President Moon Jae-in scrapped a plan to visit Tokyo for the Olympics and hold his first summit with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga amid controversy over remarks by a Seoul-based Japanese diplomat. - AFP/Reuters

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