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South Korean constitutional court's case dismissal averts diplomatic crisis with Japan

SEOUL -- The Constitutional Court of Korea's dismissal of a case on the constitutionality of a 1965 pact between Japan and South Korea appears to have come about in part to avoid jeopardizing South Korea's gradually improving relationship with Japan.

    The pact at the center of the case was signed along with the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, and addresses compensation for workers who were forced to work for Japan. Tokyo has repeatedly argued that the accord eliminates Korean individuals' rights to demand compensation, and Seoul has also taken the same position with respect to former laborers forced to work for Japan.

    Distrustful of South Korean courts, however, Tokyo had been preparing itself for the possibility that South Korea's constitutional court would rule the pact unconstitutional. The court's decision not to say whether the accord was constitutional or unconstitutional avoided a blow to bilateral ties.

    "The entire world is watching. The fact that the international community is watching closely must be taken into consideration," said Yun Byung-se, South Korea's foreign minister, on the morning of Dec. 23 before the ruling was handed down, during a debate co-hosted by a South Korean broadcaster. "I look forward to a wise decision."

    Yun's statement hinted that if the court ruled the agreement on compensation unconstitutional, the international treaty between the two countries would be overturned, wreaking havoc to diplomatic ties with Japan.

    However, South Korea's Supreme Court ruled for the first time in 2012 that the accord did not eliminate former laborers' right to seek compensation. Since then, a series of lawsuits brought by former laborers and their families has led South Korean courts to order Japanese corporations that benefitted from Korean labor to pay damages. This has been a point of contention in Japan-South Korea diplomatic ties.

    The Supreme Court of South Korea is currently hearing three cases brought by former Korean laborers. Concerned that the constitutional court could have a huge impact on these ongoing cases, the Japanese government had been following the constitutional court case closely.

    In response to the ruling, Cho Sei-young, the former director-general of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau of South Korea's Foreign Ministry, said, "We were lucky that ultimately, the ruling was not one that would exacerbate the relationship between South Korea and Japan. However, the latest ruling is unlikely to directly influence the decisions in the pending Supreme Court cases."

    The constitutional court's dismissal came over six years after the case was first brought to the court in November 2009, and observers speculated that diplomatic authorities were urging the court to avoid jeopardizing the legitimacy of the bilateral agreement.

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