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Toward legal conclusions

Jan 09,2019
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After Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during World War II, Kim Sung-joo, center, one of the victims, and families of other victims cheer in front of the highest court in Seoul on Nov. 29 last year. [KIM SANG-SEON]
Nam Jeong-ho
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Koreans are alarmingly divided on their Supreme Court’s rulings on compensation by Japanese companies for those Koreans either unpaid or underpaid for their labor during the colonial period. Retired and active diplomats mostly disagree with the Supreme Court’s interpretation that Korean individuals still have a right to pursue compensation for forced labor regardless of the 1965 basic treaty in which Seoul and Tokyo agreed to put the past behind them, with a $500 million package of compensation for the damages incurred during the Japanese occupation, and normalize diplomatic relations. The treaty prohibits individual compensation. “Like it or not, the basic treaty was a promise between two states and must be respected,” according to the general opinion of the diplomatic community angered by the court’s disregard for diplomatic procedures and norms.

Few government departments dared side with Tokyo for fear of provoking general hostility toward the Japanese over the past. But now, they allow their names to be cited by others to show their disagreement with the latest court rulings as they are convinced that the top court is wrong.

Tokyo has hit the ceiling, but not all Japanese people have gone through the roof to an equal measure. A group of 90 lawyers in Japan issued a statement in November supporting the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling in October. The number more than doubled to 200 over the following 20 days. About 80 Japanese joined a meeting on Jan. 4 in Nagoya to support a group of victims in readying their strategy to coerce compensation out of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries after winning a similar ruling from the Supreme Court.

The movement suggests that the issue should not be dealt with in the traditional framework of animosity between the two countries. Both countries have responded rashly in the past. But the issue of compensations for forced labor is innately different from the territorial dispute over the Dokdo islets and compensation for victims of sexual slavery. It is more of an ideological dispute over how much the state can speak for — and restrict — individuals’ rights. The controversy could be a litmus test on whether bilateral issues can go beyond the inter-government realm.

Some believe that Japan should not accept damage suits from the victims. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also maintains that the issue of indemnity during the colonial period was concluded by the signing of the basic treaty in 1965.

But legal experts think differently. Choi Byung-tae, who represented the victims in Korea’s highest court, claims that the highest courts of the two nations are on the same page in the judgment that the basic treaty between the two governments does not mean an expiration of individuals’ claims. He argues that Abe is misleading. An association of lawyers in Japan issued a joint statement with their Korean counterparts in December 2010 arguing that the two governments, faced with the rights of Korean workers to pursue damage claims, inconsistently interpret “final resolution of the issue” clause for reasons of expediency.

Choi is sure that Korea will win the case if the issue moves to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. Nevertheless, he said that the issue would be best settled in the ICJ if both sides want results they can agree on.

There are 14 cases similar to the suits against the Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. According to the preliminary findings during the first round of negotiations between Seoul and Tokyo in 1952, about 230,000 Korean workers were forced to work for Japanese enterprises.

But survivors are few. The issue, therefore, must be quickly brought its conclusion.

The issue must not be seen as a rivalry between the two countries, even if the case does go to the ICJ. It is more a matter of weighing the rights of individuals against inter-governmental agreements.

Seoul must not hesitate to take the case to the ICJ.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 8, Page 30