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Plaintiffs to go after firm’s assets

Nov 13,2018
The legal representatives for the Korean victims of forced labor during Japanese colonial rule said they will petition for the seizure of assets of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal after the Japanese steel giant refused to meet them on Monday.

On Monday morning, the victims’ attorneys, Im Jae-seong and Kim Sae-eun, accompanied by Korean and Japanese civic activists visited Nippon Steel’s headquarters in Tokyo’s business hub, Marunouchi, Chiyoda Ward, to demand compensation for the forced laborers during World War II, as ruled by Seoul’s top court last month.

They carried photos of the four victims who filed claims. Three died while waiting for a verdict, while the lone survivor, 94-year-old Lee Chun-shik, is too old to travel. Nippon Steel turned them away.

On Oct. 30, the Korean Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to pay 100 million won ($87.9 thousand) in compensation to each of four Korean victims of forced labor.

The Korean attorneys had prepared a letter asking Nippon Steel to implement the Supreme Court decision. But the company instead sent out a security service employee. This security employee read them a prepared statement from the company that Nippon Steel “could not accept the Korean Supreme Court decision” as it goes against the 1965 Korea-Japan Claims Agreement and the position of the Japanese government. The company added that it is “deeply regrettable” and that it will “watch the diplomatic situation” between Seoul and Tokyo.

Tokyo provided an economic cooperation fund - $500 million in economic grants and loans to the Korean government under the 1965 agreement. Tokyo claims this has settled all issues of compensation to victims of colonial rule once and for all, including individuals’ rights to file claims for damages. The Korean Supreme Court, however, ruled that the Japanese government failed to acknowledge the illegality of its colonial rule and that the victims’ rights to individual compensation have not expired.

The decision thus disputed Tokyo’s claim that the 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral ties settled all issues of compensation to victims of colonial rule once and for all.

The attorneys and activists left the building after some 30 minutes without meeting with a Nippon Steel employee. Nor were they able to deliver their request.

Lawyer Im said to reporters afterward, “Kim & Chang, representing the defendants, has communicated with Nippon Steel’s legal counsel to request a meeting numerous times but have been rebuffed, which is a cowardly act.”

The Japanese Foreign Ministry has protested the Korean court ruling and said it could consider international arbitration - possibly in the Hague-based International Court of Justice.

The issue of the victims actually getting compensation is another hurdle, however. Should Nippon Steel refuse to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, the plaintiffs could request the seizure of the company’s assets in Korea.

Im said that they will request the seizure of Nippon Steel assets in Korea. Im added that the company, as a global steel company, has a considerable amount of assets in Korea, including a 30 percent stake in PNR, a joint venture with Posco dating back to 2008.

However, the process of requesting the court to seize its assets could be lengthy. It could also further heighten tensions and jeopardize economic relations between the two countries.

Lawyer Kim left open the opportunity for mediation with Nippon Steel and said, “Because the plaintiff is elderly, he cannot wait forever. We will leave the opportunity for dialogue open.”

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said in a briefing Monday that it is “working in solidarity” with related Japanese companies in Korea, including Nippon Steel.

BY YOON SEOL-YOUNG, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]