Third Japanese Company Ordered by South Korea’s Supreme Court to Compensate Workers for Forced Labor

South Korea’s highest court has made a landmark ruling, ordering a third Japanese company to compensate some of its former wartime Korean employees for forced labor. This decision comes just a week after a similar ruling was made against another Japanese company.

While Japan has responded with disapproval, experts believe that this ruling is unlikely to have a significant negative impact on bilateral relations. Both governments are committed to improving their cooperation in light of shared challenges such as North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s assertiveness.

The Supreme Court has mandated that shipbuilder Hitachi Zosen Corp. and heavy equipment manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries must pay between 50 million won and 150 million won in compensation to each of the 17 Korean plaintiffs, one of whom is a surviving ex-worker and the rest being bereaved relatives.

While Mitsubishi and another Japanese company, Nippon Steel, had previously been given a similar compensation order by the South Korean court, this is the first ruling of its kind for Hitachi.

The plaintiffs include the surviving victim who suffered a serious burn, the bereaved family of a worker who died during an earthquake in Japan in 1944, and relatives of late Mitsubishi workers who were injured during the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The court’s decision was based on the fact that these individuals were forced to provide their labor to the companies during the period of Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-45.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry has summoned a senior South Korean diplomat to formally protest the ruling, calling it “extremely regrettable and absolutely unacceptable.” This is in line with Japan’s stance that all compensation issues were settled when the two countries normalized ties in 1965.

The South Korean rulings in 2018 and this month argue that the treaty does not prevent individuals from seeking compensation for forced labor, as the use of such laborers by Japanese companies was considered “acts of illegality against humanity” linked to Tokyo’s illegal colonial occupation and its war of aggression.

While the 2018 rulings strained bilateral ties, the situation began to improve significantly in 2023 after South Korea’s government, under conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol, established a domestic fund to compensate forced labor victims without demanding Japanese contributions.

Eleven of the 15 former forced laborers or their bereaved families involved in the 2018 rulings had accepted compensation under Seoul’s third-party reimbursement plan, but the remaining four refused to accept it. The government plans to provide compensation to the Korean plaintiffs related to Thursday’s ruling through the third-party reimbursement system as well.

Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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