Photo/IllutrationBereaved family members of five wartime laborers who worked at the Hiroshima plants of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. head toward the South Korean Supreme Court building on Nov. 29. (Provided by The Dong-A Ilbo)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The South Korean Supreme Court on Nov. 29 ordered a second Japanese company to pay compensation for South Koreans working in Japanese plants during World War II, further inflaming tensions between both nations.

The latest ruling ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. (MHI) to pay between 80 million and 150 million won each (about 8 million and 15 million yen) to 10 South Korean plaintiffs, five of whom have already died.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono issued a statement criticizing the ruling as "totally unacceptable." Using words also expressed during an earlier Supreme Court ruling, the statement said the latest ruling "completely overthrows the legal foundation of friendly, cooperative relations between the two nations."

Kono asked the South Korean government to take the necessary measures to correct a condition that constitutes a violation of international law.

The government has long taken the stance that all claims from World War II had been "completely and finally" settled in 1965 with the bilateral agreement on settlement of issues related to property and claims.

Kono's statement added that Japan would consider various steps to protect the economic activities of Japanese companies in South Korea. Growing concerns are spreading among those companies because there are an additional 12 lawsuits before the courts submitted by former South Korean workers and their bereaved family members against about 70 Japanese companies.

Meanwhile, it was a bittersweet victory for the South Korean plaintiffs since only five were still alive to hear the ruling in their favor.

One bereaved family member whose father worked in MHI's Hiroshima plant said at a news conference after the ruling, "I have conflicted feelings because it would have been better if (my father) was alive to hear the results."

Choi Bong-tae, a lawyer who has been involved in similar wartime laborer lawsuits, said, "The latest ruling is a victory for common sense for the issue of Koreans, even children, who were forced to work in Japanese factories."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs indicated that legal action to seize assets of MHI could be taken depending on what the company decides to do.

The latest Supreme Court ruling concerned two separate lawsuits filed against MHI.

One was submitted by five South Korean workers who were brought to Japan in 1944 to work at MHI plants in Hiroshima Prefecture manufacturing equipment and ships. Because all five have died, 23 bereaved family members have continued to push the lawsuit.

The other was filed by four women and a family member of another woman who were brought to Nagoya to work at an MHI aircraft manufacturing plant. The women were all in their teens when they were recruited to work at Japanese factories.

The latest ruling used similar reasoning as that spelled out in the Oct. 30 verdict against Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. that also ordered the company to pay compensation to wartime laborers. The South Korean Supreme Court ruled the workers were brought to Japan when the government was illegally ruling the Korean Peninsula as a colony and that the mobilization was an inhumane and illegal act closely intertwined with Japan's war activities.

The court added that the 1965 bilateral agreement on settlement of property and claims did not apply to the plaintiffs because they were seeking "consolation money" from the Japanese company.

Kim Seong-ju, one of the plaintiffs in the Nagoya lawsuit, said she also wanted an apology from the Japanese government because it had said the matter should be protested in South Korea.

"I have lived for a long time with resentment (toward Japan)," she said.

(This article was compiled from reports by Hajimu Takeda and Yoshihiro Makino in Seoul.)