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Park ordered trial delay to appease Japan

President feared suits by forced laborers would hurt diplomacy
Aug 18,2018
In the first year of Park Geun-hye’s presidency, when her administration was seeking to improve ties with Tokyo, the president ordered her aides to persuade the judiciary to delay trials for lawsuits involving Japanese companies and Korean victims of forced labor, Park’s former chief of staff told prosecutors on Thursday.

Kim Ki-choon, the ex-chief of staff, said Park had expressed great concern in the winter of 2013 about the Supreme Court’s ongoing review of suits filed by Koreans who were forced to produce armaments for the Japanese military during World War II.

The testimony is the first to directly implicate Park in a massive power abuse scandal in which the Supreme Court and its chief justice, Yang Sung-tae, allegedly pressured judges to deliver rulings favorable to the president in order to curry her favor.

Kim told prosecutors that Park ordered him to “resolve the matter rationally.” Not long afterward, he and then-Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se secretly met Cha Han-sung, head of the National Court Administration, the administrative office of the Supreme Court, in December 2013. At the meeting, Kim asked the judiciary to delay proceedings for the lawsuits based on the president’s direction. Yun described all the negative diplomatic repercussions that would ensue if the court ruled in favor of the victims.

The lawsuits in question are two filed by nine Korean plaintiffs against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in 2000 and Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation in 2005. Lower courts ruled against the plaintiffs in both cases, citing stipulations on compensation made in the 1965 treaty that established diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan.

The courts, citing precedents in Japan, said the treaty, signed by the Korean government under President Park Chung Hee, relinquished reparations for individual victims in return for a lump-sum settlement with Japan, money which was largely spent on government expenditures.

In 2012, the Supreme Court sent both cases back to appellate courts, which ruled against the Japanese companies, saying they had an obligation to compensate victims. Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel appealed the decision, and the lawsuits returned to the Supreme Court. Park Geun-hye allegedly intervened while the court was considering the two cases.

The justices ultimately did delay their decision, and the cases remain pending in the Supreme Court. In the meantime, seven of the nine original plaintiffs have died.

Millions of Koreans were forced into labor by Japanese companies during World War II, and an estimated hundreds of thousands died from dismal work conditions and exhaustion. Only around 3,500 victims remain, most of them in their 90s.

Two months before Kim and Yun’s meeting with Cha, then-Korean ambassador to Japan, Lee Byung-kee, submitted a report to the Blue House and Foreign Ministry on the necessity of remanding the case for diplomatic reasons, which brought the issue directly to Park’s attention.

With Kim’s testimony implicating the former president, prosecutors will likely question Park herself, who is already serving a 32-year sentence for other charges of power abuse, embezzlement and corruption.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]