South Korea Court Dismisses WWII Lawsuit That Roiled Japan Ties

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A South Korean court dismissed a lawsuit filed against Japanese companies to compensate Koreans who were conscripted to work in factories during World War II, in a case that has raised tensions between the two U.S. allies.

The Seoul Central District Court ruled Monday that the 85 former laborers and their families suing the 16 Japanese companies, including Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., didn’t have legal rights to seek damages. The plaintiffs immediately vowed to appeal.

The case is the largest among about a dozen lawsuits against about 70 Japanese firms filed by victims of wartime forced labor. Japan has long said that all claims were “settled completely and finally” under a 1965 agreement, which accompanied the treaty establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries. The plaintiffs argued that individuals could still exercise their rights to seek restitution.

The decision came as U.S. President Joe Biden recently stepped up efforts to mend plummeting relations between the countries, which both host American troops. Much of the tension has stemmed from a widely held view in South Korea that Japan hasn’t done enough to compensate the survivors.

The ruling follows a decision by a separate Seoul court in April dismissing a lawsuit filed by women who were forced to work in front-line brothels during World War II. The Seoul Central District Court said that Japan had a “sovereign immunity” and wasn’t liable to pay compensation in a South Korean civil suit.

The latest court decisions reverse legal gains made by the victims in recent years. In 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court had ordered Mitsubishi Heavy to pay as much as $134,000 to each of 10 claimants, while Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. was ordered to pay $88,000 to each of four plaintiffs.

“I just can’t hide my anger over the outcome of this trial, and it is truly heartbreaking,” said Jang Deok-hwan, president of the National Federation for Justice for Victims of Japanese Forced Labor, a support group for the survivors. Kang Gil, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said he will prepare an appeal.

An estimated 725,000 Koreans were sent to mainland Japan, Russia’s Sakhalin island and the southern Pacific Islands to work in the mining, construction and shipbuilding industries, according to a Stanford University research paper.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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