We can’t help but describe this as a turn of events that shakes the foundation of the relationship between Japan and South Korea.
The Supreme Court of South Korea ordered Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corp. (NSSMC) to pay compensation in a suit for damages filed by four South Koreans who were forced to work during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 and 1945.
In 2012, the Supreme Court first handed down a decision that the right of individuals to seek compensation “hasn’t been terminated” and overturned rulings by lower courts that sided against the plaintiffs. The Seoul High Court ordered NSSMC to pay compensation in the 2013 appeal hearing. The latest decision made by the Supreme Court upheld the high court’s judgment.
In South Korea, many trials involving suits against Japanese companies by former forced laborers are underway and there is a fear that court rulings in favor of plaintiffs could continue. Possible seizure of Japanese companies’ assets could deal a severe blow to Japanese and South Korean businesses with the inevitable further worsening of Japan-South Korea relations. The negative impact of the Supreme Court ruling is immeasurable.
Tokyo and Seoul confirmed in the Claims Agreement signed when the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1965 that the issue of the right to claim “was completely and finally resolved.” Past South Korean governments also acknowledged that the right to claim compensation from Japan cannot be granted. The government of President Roh Moo-hyun finalized the view that the South Korean government should be responsible for resolving the issue.
Though the weight of the “history” of Japan-South Korea relations should be taken into consideration, the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling, which disregards and breaks a bilateral agreement and promises steadily achieved by past Japanese and South Korean governments, is extremely regrettable.
In South Korea there is a suspicion that the Supreme Court postponed the trials involving former forced laborers for a long time in accordance with the wishes of former President Park Geun-hye, who was worried that the trials could negatively affect the Japan-South Korea relationship.
The Seoul District Prosecutor’s Office arrested a former judge of an organization affiliated with the Supreme Court of South Korea before the Supreme Court made the latest decision. We can’t help but think that the judicial ruling was swayed by the South Korean government and public opinion.
NSSMC said, “We’ll take appropriate action, taking into consideration the Japanese government’s response and other factors.” The company should closely cooperate with the Japanese government as the issue will affect the foundation of the Japan-South Korea relationship.
In South Korea, there is a plan for the Japanese and South Korean governments as well as relevant companies to set up a foundation to support former forced laborers. But Japan should not easily buy into the idea. It is crucial for Japan to continue to firmly maintain the stance that the issue of former forced laborers’ right to claim compensation “has already been resolved” and call on the South Korean government to address it as a domestic issue.
Japan and South Korea face numerous challenges that require cooperation, such as North Korea’s nuclear issue. Our hope is that the government of President Moon Jae-in will handle the issue of former forced laborers in a calm manner.