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Korean victim receives first compensation for forced labor from Japanese company

Feb. 20, 2024 - 17:19 By Lee Jaeeun
Bereaved family members of South Korean victims of Japan's wartime forced labor rejoice after a Supreme Court ruling in their favor, in this file photo taken Dec. 28, 2023. (Newsis)

The bereaved family of a forced labor victim under Japan's 1910-1945 colonization received 60 million won ($44,850) in recompense in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling, marking the first case in which funds from a Japanese company were transferred to a forced labor victim.

The family of the late victim surnamed Lee, who worked at the firm's shipyard starting in September 1944, withdrew 60 million won on Tuesday from the Seoul Central District Court, which Osaka-based industrial and engineering firm Hitachi Zosen had deposited with the court as a kind of collateral.

Before he died, Lee filed a suit against Hitachi Zosen in November 2014 demanding 120 million won in compensation for his forced labor. The Seoul High Court in January ordered Hitachi Zosen to pay 50 million won as well as 10 million won for loss incurred by delay to the Korean plaintiff for forcing him to work from September 1944 to August 1945.

Hitachi Zosen appealed a lower court ruling partially in favor of Lee, saying the period for compensation had expired, but the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision in December 2023. As Lee died before the Supreme Court's decision, the case was continued by his family.

However, as the firm has not complied, the plaintiffs filed a request to seize funds deposited by Hitachi Zosen with the Seoul Central District Court on Jan. 10.

Earlier, Hitachi Zosen in 2019 deposited 60 million won with the court to prevent the company's assets in South Korea from being seized and liquidated for compensation. It was the first and only case in which a Japanese company involved in wartime forced labor paid money to a Korean court.

Accordingly, the Seoul Central District granted the request to seize funds deposited by Hitachi Zosen made by a plaintiff seeking compensation related to a wartime labor lawsuit. As Lee's family received the money, it marked the first instance where funds from a Japanese company were transferred to a wartime labor victim.

"This is the first time that money voluntarily paid by a Japanese company has been delivered to a victim of forced labor," said a lawyer for the Lee family. "It's meaningful that de facto compensation for some victims has been provided by a Japanese company."

Regarding the compensation case, the Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, "There is no change in the government's position that a government-affiliated foundation without compensation from liable Japanese firms compensates victims of Japanese wartime forced labor."

As part of efforts to improve ties with Japan, the Seoul government announced its decision in March 2023 to compensate victims through a government-affiliated foundation without contributions from involved Japanese firms. Following the announcement, victims and supporting civic groups initially strongly protested the plan, demanding Japan's apology and the direct involvement of the accused companies in the compensation process. Many plaintiffs, however, later decided to accept the government's plan.