S Korean court angers Japan with order on wartime labourers

SEOUL: South Korea’s top court ruled on Thursday that Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd must compensate 10 South Koreans for their forced labour during World War II, a ruling that drew an immediate rebuke from Tokyo.
The decision echoed the Supreme Court’s landmark verdict last month that ruled in favour of South Koreans seeking compensation from Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp for their wartime forced labour.
It upheld a 2013 appeals court decision that Mitsubishi must pay 80 million won ($71,000) to each of five labourers or their families in compensation.
In a separate ruling, the court also ordered Mitsubishi to pay up to 150 million won to each of another five plaintiffs or their families.
Mitsubishi called the verdict “deeply regrettable”, saying in a statement that it would discuss its response with the Japanese government.
Japan and South Korea share a bitter history that includes Japan’s 1910-45 colonisation of the Korean peninsula and the use of comfort women, Japan’s euphemism for girls and women, many of them Korean, forced to work in its wartime brothels.
The rows over wartime history have long been a stumbling block for relations between the East Asian neighbours, sparking concern that it could jeopardise joint efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear programme.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono issued a statement calling the court’s decisions “totally unacceptable.” The ministry summoned the South Korean ambassador to lodge a complaint.
“The decisions completely overthrow the legal foundation of the friendly and cooperative relationship” between the two countries, Kono said.
Kono urged Seoul to take immediate action to remedy “unjustifiable damages and costs” inflicted on Japanese firms or Tokyo would consider its options, including referring the case to an international court.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry expressed regret over what it called Japan’s “extreme reaction”, also calling in the Japanese ambassador and urging restraint.
“We will craft our response in a way that could heal the victims’ pain and wounds, but at the same time foster a forward-looking relationship with Japan,” ministry spokesman Roh Kyu-deok told a news briefing.
“But the administration has to respect a judiciary decision under the principle of the separation of the powers.”
Previous cases the group of five former labourers had brought in Japan were dismissed on the grounds that their right to reparation was terminated by a 1965 treaty normalising diplomatic ties between Seoul and Tokyo.
However, the South Korean Supreme Court upheld last month’s ruling that Japan’s occupation of the peninsula was illegal.
“The treaty does not cover the right of the victims of forced labour to compensation for crimes against humanity committed by a Japanese company in direct connection with the Japanese government’s illegal colonial rule and war of aggression against the Korean peninsula,” the court said in a statement. — Reuters