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S. Korea court OKs seizing Japan firm's assets over forced labor

Lawyers representing four South Koreans, recently awarded damages by the country's top court for forced labor during colonial rule, visit Japanese steelmaker Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. in Tokyo on Nov. 12, 2018. (Kyodo)

SEOUL (Kyodo) -- A South Korean court said Tuesday that it has approved a request to seize South Korean assets of Japanese steelmaking giant Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. for refusing to comply with a court order to pay compensation for wartime forced labor.

Lawyers representing South Korean plaintiffs had requested in late December that the Daegu District Court, in the country's southeast, seize Nippon Steel's shares in a joint venture with South Korean steelmaker POSCO.

The move follows a ruling by South Korea's Supreme Court in October ordering the Japanese company to pay 400 million won (about $350,000) to four South Koreans for their forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The lawyers, in a statement, said the seizure order has been dispatched to POSCO-Nippon Steel RHF Joint Venture.

Once it is delivered, the seizure process becomes effective and Nippon Steel cannot divest its 30 percent stake in the joint venture.

The Japanese government maintains that the issue of compensation was settled "completely and finally" in an agreement attached to a 1965 treaty that normalized ties between Japan and South Korea.

Reacting to the district court's decision, Japanese officials said Tokyo is closely monitoring how the South Korean government responds to the wartime labor rulings and pointed out that Nippon Steel's assets are unlikely to be seized anytime soon.

If the South Korean government does move to seize them, they said, Tokyo would seek talks with Seoul based on the attached agreement.

"The stocks subject to the seizure will not be translated into cash immediately," a senior official of the prime minister's office in Tokyo said.

Another Japanese government source said, "There is no change in our stance urging the South Korean government to take a proper response."

On Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on a television program that he has directed ministries "to consider specific measures based on international law to show our resolute stance" regarding the matter.

Abe did not specify the potential countermeasures, but they could include taking the case to the International Court of Justice, according to government sources.

The South Korean lawyers had previously set a Dec. 24 deadline for Nippon Steel to respond to their request to begin compensation talks based on the October ruling, but the firm did not do so.

The lawyers notably did not apply for an order forcing the sale of the assets, which is often done at the same time when applying for asset seizure, indicating their desire for a smooth resolution.

In another wartime forced labor case, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. faces a similar order by a South Korean court to compensate two groups of South Koreans.

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