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Tokyo decries S. Korean ruling ordering Japanese firm to compensate ex- forced laborers

South Korean Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Kim Myeongsu, center, sits with other justices upon their arrival at the Supreme Court in Seoul, South Korea, on Oct. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

SEOUL/TOKYO -- The Supreme Court of South Korea ruled on Oct. 30 that Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corp. (NSSMC) must pay compensation to four former employees who were forced to work at its steel mills during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

The decision is certain to adversely affect the already tense relationship between Tokyo and Seoul, over other historical and territorial issues. It also runs counter to the understanding shared by the governments of the two countries that the issue of prewar reparations has already been settled based on a 1965 agreement on compensation and later arrangements devised to support such former forced laborers.

The 1965 agreement obligated Japan to pay a total of 500 million dollars to South Korea and stated that Japan and South Korea confirmed that issues related to reparation between the two countries had been "resolved completely and finally."

Speaking to reporters in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe criticized the decision as "impossible under international law." Abe added that "the government of Japan will handle the situation with firmness."

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono also stated that the decision was a violation of the 1965 agreement. "The ruling not only puts a Japanese company at an undue disadvantage, but also shakes the legal foundations of the friendship and cooperation that has existed between Japan and South Korea since 1965 when their ties were normalized," he said, adding the decision was "unacceptable."

Kono continued to demand that Seoul take "appropriate measures" including "correcting the violation of international law." The foreign minister said Japan will take "every option under consideration," including taking the case to an international court. He summoned South Korean Ambassador to Japan Lee Su-hoon to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the same day to lodge a complaint over the ruling.

NSSMC said in a statement that the ruling is against the 1965 agreement and the Japanese government's view. "We will review the court decision in detail and take appropriate action, taking into consideration the Japanese government's response and other factors," the company said.

This controversial court case has gone through a long and winding path. In 2012 the same Supreme Court made a first decision that the right of individuals to seek reparations from Japan for wrongdoing during the colonial rule still stands. The Supreme Court rescinded a high-court decision that sided against the former workers, and ordered the Seoul High Court to re-examine the case. The high court ruled in July 2013 that NSSMC must pay about 100 million won (about 10 million yen) to each of the plaintiffs. The Japanese company appealed the decision, based on the Japanese government's position.

A South Korean panel organized by former President Roh Moo-hyun concluded that the Japanese money paid according to the 1965 agreement covered compensation for forced laborers from South Korea.

As more than five years have passed since the high court decision ordering Japan to pay reparations, the South Korean prosecution arrested a Supreme Court official in charge of this case on Oct. 27, alleging that the individual abused their judicial administrative authority.

The Japanese government is watching closely the reaction of the administration of President Moon Jae-in. It is possible that Seoul would seek to have dialogue with Japan on this issue based on the 1965 agreement, but Tokyo intends to maintain its traditional position. If the two countries fail to reach a compromise, a three-member mediation committee comprising representatives from Japan, South Korea and a third country could be formed per agreement. Negotiations by the panel are certain to be difficult.

The government of Japan has an option of referring the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). But the ICJ only accepts cases where all relevant parties agree for the world court to handle their case. South Korea does not recognize the court's compulsory jurisdiction, meaning the country will not accept its decisions if it does not agree with them. The case cannot be taken to the ICJ without Seoul's agreement.

(Japanese original by Chiharu Shibue, Seoul Bureau)

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