SEOUL--South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled on May 24 that people who were forced to work without pay for Japanese companies during World War II are entitled to seek compensation.
The decision in favor of nine men seeking unpaid wages and compensation from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and Nippon Steel Corp. directly contradicts the stance of the Japanese Supreme Court on the issue and could open the door to a flood of lawsuits against Japanese firms.
At least 175,000 Koreans who worked for Japanese companies during the war returned to the Korean Peninsula without being paid, according to a 2010 study by Japan's Justice Ministry.
Japan’s Supreme Court has maintained that individuals lost the right to sue under the 1965 treaty between Japan and South Korea, which was signed as part of the normalization of relations between the two nations.
But the South Korean justices said they could not accept the Japanese court verdicts against South Korean plaintiffs because those rulings considered Japan's colonial domination of the Korean Peninsula legal.
The South Korean Supreme Court went on to consider whether the right to seek compensation by the plaintiffs still existed. The Supreme Court ruled that the 1965 treaty on compensation rights did not cover those individuals who sought compensation for inhumane and illegal acts in which Japan's state was involved or for illegal acts directly linked to Japan's colonial domination of the Korean Peninsula.
The South Korean government has previously maintained that the 1965 treaty does not apply to "comfort women" who provided sexual services for the Imperial Japanese Army, victims of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and South Koreans who were abandoned on Sakhalin at the end of World War II. The Supreme Court ruling expands that category to cover those forced to work for Japanese companies.
The South Korean government has taken a more limited stance. A committee set up in August 2005 to look into compensation rights and made up of individuals from the private and public sectors recommended that $300 million (23.89 billion yen) in grant aid from Japan, given as part of economic cooperation measures, should be considered as part of the money to resolve compensation claims by those who were forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II.
One South Korean government source said it would be difficult for the government to change that position.
However, the latest ruling comes in the wake of the August 2011 ruling by South Korea's constitutional court, which called on the South Korean government to negotiate with Tokyo for compensation for "comfort women."
(This article was compiled from reports by Akihiko Kaise, Akira Nakano and Tetsuya Hakoda.)
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