Photo/IllutrationPlaintiffs and bereaved family members enter the South Korean Supreme Court on Oct. 30 to hear its ruling on compensation from a Japanese company. (Hajimu Takeda)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Japanese officials warned of a deterioration in relations with South Korea after its Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to pay compensation to wartime laborers from the Korean Peninsula.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that the Oct. 30 verdict was “inconceivable in light of international law.”

An hour after the verdict was announced, Foreign Minister Taro Kono issued a statement that called the ruling “extremely regrettable and totally unacceptable.”

Kono on Oct. 31 called South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha to relay Japan’s criticism of the top court ruling.

“It completely overthrows the legal foundation of relations between the two nations,” Kono told his counterpart.

The Japanese foreign minister later told reporters that Tokyo would wait and see how Seoul responds rather than take immediate action against South Korea.

The top court upheld an order for the Japanese company to pay 100 million won ($87,700 or 9.8 million yen) each to four South Koreans who said they were forced to work at the company under harsh conditions in Japan during World War II.

According to South Korean Foreign Ministry officials, Kang told Kono that the South Korean government would respect the Supreme Court’s verdict but would also prepare measures to deal with the ruling after comprehensively considering various factors.

Kono also asked Kang for South Korean government measures to ensure that no Japanese company is disadvantaged because of the ruling.

Japan has long argued that all compensation claims had been “settled completely and finally” by the 1965 bilateral agreement on settlement of property and claims.

However, the South Korean Supreme Court said the Korean laborers were mobilized to work in Japan when the Japanese government was ruling the Korean Peninsula illegally as a colony, and that the recruitment by the Japanese company was an inhumane and illegal act closely intertwined with Japan’s war activities.

With that as background, the top court said the 1965 agreement did not apply to the plaintiffs’ case because they were not seeking unpaid wages and compensation, but were making a claim for “consolation money from the Japanese company as a victim of the forced labor” movement.

Although Kono told Kang that bilateral ties would be seriously compromised if Seoul did not take appropriate measures, Japan also faces a dilemma because cooperation with Seoul is vital in dealing with North Korea.

The Supreme Court’s ruling is the latest impediment in a number of recent events that have thrown cold water on ties with South Korea.

A foundation set up under a bilateral agreement to support former “comfort women” who were forced to provide sex to Japanese military personnel before and during World War II is on the verge of dissolution.

In October, the Maritime Self-Defense Force scrapped its planned participation in an international fleet review in South Korea after Seoul asked the MSDF to lower the “kyokujitsuki” flag, which some Asian nations still consider a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

Japan is also concerned about the ramifications of the court’s decision on other cases in South Korea regarding compensation for wartime laborers brought to Japan to work for a number of other Japanese companies.

The organization providing support to Lee Choon-shik, 94, the sole surviving plaintiff in the lawsuit against Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal, indicated at an Oct. 30 news conference in Seoul that the verdict provided a new departure point for other South Koreans brought to work in Japan.

The group said 1 million Koreans were forced to work abroad during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945.

Japanese companies named in other compensation lawsuits are also closely monitoring moves by the government.

Four economic organizations--Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Keizai Doyukai (Japan Association of Corporate Executives) and the Japan-Korea Economic Association--issued a joint statement on Oct. 30.

“We are deeply concerned because (the verdict) could become a barrier in pursuing investment and business opportunities in South Korea in the future,” the statement said.