'Japanese firms must pay for wartime labor'
Supreme Court rules for ex-Korean workers over Mitsubishi
By Na Jeong-ju
The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Japanese firms are responsible for compensating Koreans who were forced to work for them during the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945).
It overturned a lower court’s ruling that cleared two Japanese firms, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel Corp., of the responsibility to pay compensation, saying the forced labor was “illegal.”
A group of six Koreans who worked at the firms during World War II and their family members have been in a legal battle, demanding compensation for unpaid salaries and the “mental and physical suffering” they had to experience due to the forced labor.
The ruling paves the way for individual Korean war victims to get compensation. Scholars estimate that more than 1 million Koreans were either conscripted as soldiers or mobilized as forced laborers before and during World War II, but many have died.
It’s the first time that forced labor victims have won a damage suit in either Korea or Japan.
In 1965, Seoul and Tokyo signed an accord to reestablish diplomatic ties in exchange for Japan providing about $500 million in compensation and special loans. Citing the agreement, Japan has rejected all compensation claims by individual war victims.
Lee Myung-mok, 89, one of the plaintiffs, recalled that he was taken to a Mitsubishi’s manufacturing plant in Hiroshima in 1944 and had to work every day under severe conditions. He said he returned to Korea after an atomic bomb was dropped on the city on Aug. 6, 1945. In Japan, he missed his family in Korea, but every letter he wrote to them was censored by the company. He said he paid his own fare to go back to Korea after the bombing devastated Hiroshima.
The court said the Japanese firms must pay unpaid wages to the Korean laborers and compensate them for their suffering. “It was illegal to force them to work,” Judge Kim Neung-hwan said.
The group lodged a similar damages suit with a Japanese court in 1995, but lost as Japanese judges ruled that the statute of limitations on their cases had expired. The victims then filed another suit with a Korean court in 2005.
District and appeals courts also ruled against them, but acknowledged that the Japanese government had mobilized Koreans by force to supply manpower required at the Japanese firms and that they had undergone extreme hardship including compulsory labor and insufficient food.
Unlike Japan, Germany paid billions of Euros to a total of 1.67 million individual World War II victims, taking not just legal but moral responsibility. Japan says the 1965 accord with then-Park Chung-hee military regime cleared it of legal responsibility to compensate Korean victims.