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Seoul court dismisses lawsuit on Japan’s wartime forced labor

Court says victims’ right to claim damages is included in 1965 settlement agreement between Korea and Japan

June 7, 2021 - 17:37 By Shin Ji-hye
Lim Cheol-ho (left), whose father died in Japan during the war as a victim of forced labor, leaves the court after the judge dismisses the lawsuit filed by 85 plaintiffs on Monday. (Yonhap)
A Seoul court ruled Monday that victims of Japan’s wartime forced labor cannot sue Japanese companies. The victims said they would appeal the ruling.

The Seoul Central District Court rejected a lawsuit filed by 85 plaintiffs, comprising forced laborers and bereaved family members of forced laborers, against 16 Japanese companies including Nippon Steel, Nissan Chemical and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Rejection means the court made its decision without hearing the case because it deemed the suit not to have met the requirements for litigation. This can be seen as a defeat for the plaintiffs.

“We cannot say that individual claims are extinguished or abandoned under the Korea-Japan Settlements Claims Agreement, but we ruled that they cannot be exercised through lawsuits,” the judge said, explaining the decision.

The two nations signed the settlement agreement in 1965 after signing the Treaty on Basic Relations. Under the agreement, Japan agreed to provide South Korea with $300 million in grants and up to $200 million in loans.

The victims’ right to claim damages is already included in the agreement, the judge said.

“According to Article 27 of the Vienna Convention, domestic legal circumstances that recognize the illegality of the colonial rule cannot justify the failure of the agreement, a treaty agreed to collectively compensate,” the court said.

“Recognizing this case could result in violation of international law, including the principle of estoppel under Article 27 of the Vienna Convention.”

This case is the largest of several lawsuits filed by victims of Japan’s wartime forced labor against Japanese companies. They sought a total of 8.6 billion won ($7.7 million) in damages.

Originally the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in May 2015, but the deadline was pushed ahead due to problems such as delays in delivery of documents to the Japanese companies, and the first hearing was held only last month. About 10 people involved in the case reportedly died before then.

The Japanese companies named in the suit consistently refused to respond, but after the court decided to deliver the disclosure, they appointed a local lawyer as their representative.

The victims and bereaved family members who watched the proceedings expressed strong regret.

After the ruling Jang Deok-hwan, who represents the victims as the leader of an association, told reporters, “It really can’t happen. We will prepare for an immediate appeal on this matter.”

Kang Gil, the victims’ lawyer, said, “It is a very unfair condition that they did not even receive wages in the state of compulsory labor.

“At least wages and equivalent alimony should be compensated. The relationship between the two countries should also be reestablished on that basis.”

Lim Cheol-ho, 85, asked, “Why are you taking other people’s lives? Why do you take other people’s property and lives? Are they Korean judges and court?”

Lim’s father, the late Lim Chul-kyu, died in Japan during the colonial era as a victim of forced labor.

The ruling on Monday contradicts an October 2018 ruling from the Supreme Court, which sided with a different group of victims against Japanese companies. Upholding a lower court ruling, the Supreme Court awarded 100 million won per person to four victims of forced labor.

By Shin Ji-hye (