SEOUL — A court in South Korea this week for the first time ordered a Japanese company to pay compensation to victims of forced labor during Japan's colonial rule. The unprecedented ruling could bolster pending cases and grievances against Japan for wartime abuses. Analysts say it may also widen a rift in relations between the two countries.
The Seoul High Court ruled Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corporation must pay four South Korean men $88,0000 each for forcing them to work in their factories in the 1940s.
It is the first time a court ordered a Japanese company to pay compensation for wartime abuses.
Cases brought by other wartime victims since the 1990s in both Japan and South Korea ruled in favor of the Japanese companies. They argued the restructured Japanese companies of today were not responsible for actions of their predecessors.
The men were forced to work for Japan Iron and Steel Company, which later changed its name to Nippon Steel. It merged last year with Sumitomo Metal to become the second largest steelmaker in the world.
One of the elderly men, 90-year-old Yeo Woon-taek, described how the company treated him at a news conference after the court ruling.
He said he was captured by Japan and, as a slave of Japan for two years, was beaten many times and starved many times. He said he almost died as he worked with electricity in dangerous conditions.
The steel company said it would appeal and quickly rejected the ruling as unjustified and against a 1965 agreement between Japan and South Korea for wartime reparations.
The agreement gave South Korea $800 million in grants and loans and normalized diplomatic relations.
But, South Korea's Supreme Court last year ruled the treaty was between countries and did not prevent individuals from claiming compensation.
Lee Jang-hie, a professor of law at Seoul's Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said the ruling is likely to encourage further successful lawsuits against Japanese companies for abuses during World War II.
He said even though there were only four victims at the court, there are many others who did not file lawsuits. However, he said, if other victims file lawsuits then they will also win.
There are at least four pending similar cases in South Korean courts, including one against Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries with an expected ruling at the end of this month.
During its 35 years of colonial rule, Japan forced hundreds of thousands of Koreans to work in factories, much of it for the war effort.
The unprecedented ruling comes as relations between Japan and South Korea have cooled over disputed territory and war-time atrocities.
Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak upset Japan last year by visiting a pair of disputed islands, known as Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan.
In Japan, leaders upset Korea by casting doubt on World War II abuses such as forcing Korean women into prostitution as so-called “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers.
“Japanese-Korean relations are arguably in the worst state that they've been in decades," noted Thomas Berger, a professor of international relations at Boston University and author of War, Guilt and World Politics after World War II. "And, certainly, they can get a lot worse. But, certainly, if...Korean courts start seizing property of the Japanese, this will really lead to further disruption.”
President Park Geun-Hye was the first South Korean leader to have a state visit to China before Japan, a move widely interpreted as a snub.
She was inaugurated in February but has yet to schedule a meeting with nationalist Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Tough balancing act
Berger said the Japanese leader has not made it easy for President Park by making controversial statements about Japan's war-time aggression.
“She is the daughter of former Korean military dictator Park Chung-hee who was president in 1965 when Korean-Japanese relations were normalized. And, she is in a situation where it is very difficult for her to be soft and conciliatory on these issues because her personal background can be used against her by her political opponents,” he explained.
Despite the tensions, Berger said Korea and Japan have a lot of fundamental interests, which should help put the two countries back on friendly terms.
They are both liberal democracies and U.S. allies, major trading partners, and have common security concerns regarding North Korea.
There are also cultural ties. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Koreans became Japanese citizens after the war and occupation ended.
VOA Seoul Producer Kim Youmi contributed to this report.