South Korean court orders two Japanese companies to compensate Korean workers for forced labor during wartime

South Korea’s Supreme Court has ordered two Japanese companies to provide further financial compensation to their wartime Korean workers for forced labor, supporting their controversial 2018 verdicts and potentially impacting relations between the neighboring countries. The compensation totals between 100 million and 150 million won ($76,700 and $115,000) for each of the plaintiffs affected by the colonial-era forced labor.

The court’s ruling drew emotional responses from the affected families, with Joo Soon-ja, the daughter of a late forced laborer, expressing both sadness and relief at the outcome of the trial. Despite the late acknowledgment, the families welcomed the court’s decision to provide long-overdue compensation.

This ruling stemmed from a series of events in 2018 when the South Korean court initially ordered Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel to compensate a total of 15 other Korean employees for forced labor. This decision did not sit well with Japan, as it challenged the assumed finality of compensation established by a 1965 bilateral treaty. Thursday’s ruling further fueled the disagreement between the two nations.
While the 2018 verdicts have may have strained relations, the current Seoul and Tokyo governments are working to enhance their partnership in light of ongoing shared challenges, including North Korea’s nuclear threats and China’s assertive behavior.

Throughout the disputes between South Korea and Japan, the United States has been engaged in efforts to strengthen trilateral cooperation, but the strained ties have complicated these efforts. With the Seoul-Tokyo relations beginning to show signs of thawing, both countries have resumed high-level talks and withdrawn economic retaliatory steps against each other.

Although the forced labor issue is not completely resolved, South Korea has established a domestic compensation fund to handle the payouts to the affected individuals. However, should a future South Korean government attempt to dismantle the system, it could have serious implications for bilateral ties with Japan.

South Korea’s current conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol, has been proactive in improving ties with Japan, despite facing backlash from some forced labor victims and liberal opposition politicians who demand direct compensation from the Japanese companies. Yoon argues that strengthening ties between South Korea and Japan is crucial for tackling regional challenges and global supply chain issues.

The recent ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court is expected to build on the progress already made in improving relations between the two countries. The high-level economic talks held in Seoul and the agreement to work towards substantial cooperation represent significant steps forward. The current focus is on providing compensation to the Korean plaintiffs affected by the recent ruling, as well as resolving other pending cases in South Korean courts related to wartime forced labor.

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