South Korea Arrests Former Chief Justice Linked to Japan Cases

(Bloomberg) -- South Korea made an unprecedented arrest of a former Supreme Court chief justice as tensions with Tokyo mount about cases winding through its courts from Koreans used as forced labor by imperial Japan.

The Seoul Central District Court issued an arrest warrant for retired Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae on charges of using his influence to stymie lawsuits including claims for damages by Koreans conscripted into labor during the 1910-45 period.

The court said in a statement it issued the warrant due to “the gravity of the matter” and “a worry of destroying evidence.” It said Yang faced charges that included abusing power, while local media including Yonhap News Agency said he might face as many as 40 counts.

Japan has rallied against a series of Korean court decisions demanding compensation from the war-time predecessors of Japanese firms, saying the decisions run counter to a 1965 treaty between the nations that settled all such claims. South Korean officials have long-argued that Japan hasn’t shown proper contrition over colonial rule and the suffering of Koreans.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on the arrest. “It’s a domestic matter pertaining to another country’s criminal proceedings,” Suga told a regular news briefing Thursday.

Diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea has chilled since the South Korean Supreme Court ruled in October that Nippon Steel Sumitomo Metal Corp. should compensate South Korean forced laborers. The ruling was followed by several other similar rulings including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. that further strained ties.

Yang served as chief justice from 2011 to 2017 and was charged with using his influence on behalf of conservative governments to thwart compensation cases. He also faces charges that he met with lawyers representing Japanese firms to help them prevail in the compensation cases, according to Yonhap.

The former judge left office the same year that President Moon Jae-in took power. Moon, who as a lawyer once represented Korean forced laborers, has publicly backed an independent judiciary, but could face a backlash if he was seen as using his influence on the forced labor cases.

There are more than a dozen such cases pending in South Korea involving about 70 companies, according to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Friction caused by the troubled 20th century history of the neighbors, who are each other’s third-largest trading partners, has never escalated to the point where it becomes a major economic or military risk.

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