Photo/IllutrationPlaintiffs and their supporters head to the South Korean Supreme Court in October 2018 to hear the ruling in a lawsuit seeking compensation for wartime labor from a Japanese company. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

SEOUL--South Korea is considering establishing a foundation to provide support to wartime laborers but on the condition that Japanese companies obey court rulings and pay compensation.

However, a high-ranking Japanese government official told The Asahi Shimbun, “(The proposal) is not worthy of consideration.”

Japanese government officials have repeatedly said that a 1965 bilateral agreement settled all wartime claims for compensation. They have told their South Korean counterparts that Japanese companies should not suffer any damage from the rulings of the South Korean Supreme Court.

According to sources knowledgeable about Japan-South Korea ties, the South Korean government is seeking a way outside the court system to help the thousands of Koreans who were often forced to work for Japanese companies when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.

South Korea’s top court has already ordered Japanese companies, such as Nippon Steel Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., to pay compensation to 32 wartime laborers and bereaved family members totaling about 2.7 billion won (about 250 million yen or $2.3 million).

But an additional 926 South Koreans are involved in similar compensation lawsuits, and Seoul is hoping those individuals will withdraw their suits and settle for economic support from the foundation.

The foundation would also provide assistance to some of the estimated 140,000 other Korean wartime laborers, including those already deceased, who have not taken any legal action.

Sources said the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in is hoping to finalize the total compensation amount to be paid by the Japanese companies by separating the plaintiffs who have already won rulings from those still in the judicial process.

The Moon administration believes that a finalized amount could encourage the Japanese companies to pay.

Plaintiffs have expressed their understanding for the new foundation plan.

Although the Moon administration has until now said it would respect the court rulings on the wartime labor compensation issue, officials of the South Korean president’s office have been sounding out plaintiffs from May about the foundation proposal.

Lee Hee-ja, the joint leader of a South Korean citizens group that has helped wartime victims obtain compensation, said: “The most important objective is to encourage the Japanese companies that have been ignoring the Supreme Court rulings to abide by the verdicts. If they voluntarily obeyed the rulings, they would not have to sell off their assets in South Korea and their image in South Korea would also greatly improve."

The president's office on May 23 announced that Cho Sei-young, chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy who has diplomatic experience in Japan, would be named as first vice foreign minister. In that position, Cho would handle the laborer compensation issue.

Seoul is hoping that Cho’s experience working with Japanese officials will achieve a breakthrough that can lead to a meeting between Moon and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit to be held in Osaka in June.