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S. Korea court dismisses wartime labor case against 16 Japan firms

South Korean protesters hold up cards during a rally to mark the South Korean Liberation Day from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, in Seoul, South Korea, on Aug. 15, 2019. The sign reads "No. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

SEOUL, Jun 7, 2021, Kyodo. A South Korean district court on Monday dismissed a wartime labor compensation lawsuit brought by a group of Koreans against 16 Japanese companies including Nippon Steel Corp. and Mitsubishi Materials Corp, Kyodo News Agency reported.

The Seoul Central District Court said that while the plaintiffs have not lost their right to claims as individuals under a 1965 bilateral accord under which Japan provided grants and loans to South Korea, such a right cannot be exercised through lawsuits.

South Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 had ordered Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to compensate South Korean plaintiffs for forced labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

The top court had said then that the right of individuals to claim damages was not terminated by the accord, which stipulates that issues relating to property and claims between the two countries and their peoples have been settled “completely and finally.”

“We cannot say that an individual’s right to claims completely expired under the agreement but it is right to interpret that a South Korean national is limited in exercising it against Japan or a Japanese national,” the Seoul court said in a statement.

According to the court, a total of 85 plaintiffs consisting of former Japanese wartime laborers and their bereaved family members filed the lawsuit in May 2015, demanding a combined 8.6 billion won ($7.74 million) in damages.

A lawyer who supports the plaintiffs said Monday that the court’s ruling was unjust as it went against the higher court’s decision, and that an appeal would be filed immediately.

Among the other firms named as defendants in the case were Nishimatsu Construction Co., Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. and Sumiseki Materials Co.

The lawsuit in question was originally brought against 17 Japanese companies, but one of them, a construction company, was dropped from the suit last month.

The case languished in the court for years as the Japanese defendants refused to accept court papers. But in March, the court posted relevant information on its website in a process known as notification by public announcement, allowing the case to proceed.

May 28 was the case’s first hearing.

The court had scheduled the ruling for Thursday, but notified parties in the case earlier Monday that the ruling date had been moved up.

Ties between South Korea and Japan have soured since the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court rulings, with court proceedings under way to sell off the Japanese companies’ assets in South Korea to compensate the plaintiffs.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Monday it respects both the Seoul court’s ruling and the plaintiffs’ rights, and will continue consulting with Japan to discuss rational solutions that both governments and all the parties concerned can accept.

Japan has maintained the position that the 1965 bilateral agreement settled all claims related to its 35-year colonial rule of the peninsula.

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