A court in Seoul has dismissed a lawsuit filed against 16 Japanese companies to compensate Koreans who were forced to work in factories during World War II, citing a possible violation of the 1965 treaty between the two nations.
The Seoul Central District Court ruled on Monday that the 85 former laborers suing the Japanese companies had no legal rights to claim damages from Japan, adding that the 1965 pact normalizing relations between South Korea and Japan covered victims’ right to compensation.
“It cannot be said that individual claims are terminated or waived due to the Korea-Japan treaty. But it was decided that the individual rights cannot be exercised through lawsuits,” South Korean news agency Yonhap quoted the court as saying, referring to the 1965 pact.
“Are they really South Korean judges? Is this really a South Korean court?” asked the son of a deceased forced laborer outside the court, quoted by ABC news. “We don’t need a country or government that doesn’t protect its own people.”
A group of 85 South Koreans and their families filed a lawsuit in 2015 against 16 Japanese companies, including Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp, Nissan Chemical Corp, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd, demanding compensation equivalent to $7.73 million.
According to Yonhap, the case is the largest among many similar lawsuits filed by South Korean victims of wartime forced labor in Japan.
Korea was under Japan’s rule between 1910 and 1945, and during World War II thousands of Koreans were conscripted to work for Japanese companies without pay. The plaintiffs were reported as saying that the workers endured harsh conditions that caused “extreme” mental and physical pain and were unable to return to normal lives after the end of the war.
In April, the same court dismissed a lawsuit filed by South Korean women who were forced to work in front-line brothels and were referred to as “comfort women”, saying the country’s government was not liable because it had a “sovereign immunity” and could not be sued in another country.
The latest ruling may be seen as a nod to Japan, which insists that all wartime compensation issues were settled by the 1965 pact that was followed by economic aid and loans from Tokyo to Seoul.
In 2018 Japan rejected a decision by South Korea’s Supreme Court which ordered Nippon Steel to pay four Korean plaintiffs an equivalent of 89,900 US dollars.
“I just can’t hide my anger over the outcome of this trial, and it is truly heartbreaking,” Bloomberg quoted Jang Deok-hwan from the National Federation for Justice for Victims of Japanese Forced Labor as saying, when commenting on the latest ruling. The plaintiffs have vowed to appeal.
In 2018, the South Korea Supreme Court ruled that the 1965 treaty did not terminate the former forced laborers’ right to file individual claims for compensation.
The legal representative of the plaintiffs said that the judges appeared to “have ruled differently because it’s a sensitive issue between the two countries,” Kang Gil, a lawyer for the victims, said as quoted by Reuters.
A South Korean foreign ministry official has said the government would pursue efforts “with an open mind” to find a reasonable solution acceptable to all sides involved.
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