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International Relations

Lawyers give Nippon Steel deadline for wartime labor ruling

Plaintiff attorneys threaten to seize Korean assets after Dec. 24

Lawyers representing former Korean wartime laborers speak to reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday. (Photo by Hidetake Miyamoto)

TOKYO/SEOUL -- Lawyers representing former South Korean wartime laborers seeking redress from Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal gave the Japanese steelmaker a Christmas Eve deadline to begin talks with the plaintiffs to honor a court-ordered compensation or risk having their assets in South Korea seized.

"We wish for [Nippon Steel] to responsibly demonstrate the intention to discuss" the ruling, one of the attorneys said Tuesday in Tokyo. The litigators specifically set the time limit at 5 p.m. on Dec. 24 before they initiate the process for asset seizures, the first time that such a deadline was set in lawsuits by wartime laborers.

South Korea's Supreme Court ruled in October that Nippon Steel should pay reparations of 100 million won ($90,000) to each of the four former laborers who were forced to work for the company during World War II. Although the lawyers threatened to seize assets, they emphasized that the process is different from liquidating assets into cash, indicating that they would prioritize talks with Nippon Steel even after seizure procedures are taken.

The attorneys said they could go after equity and intellectual property rights held by Nippon Steel. For one, the company has a recycling joint venture with South Korean steelmaker Posco. The attorneys said Nippon Steel's interest is worth 11 billion won.

An idea has been floated for Japan and South Korea to jointly establish a public-private fund dedicated to addressing the grievances of Korean wartime laborers. "We think of it as one proposal" among other alternatives, said one of the two litigators.

Nippon Steel has not issued a comment addressing Tuesday's press conference by the plaintiffs' lawyers. The legal team visited the company's Tokyo headquarters seeking a meeting, but Nippon Steel did not comply.

Attorneys ended up placing with receptionists a document addressed to Nippon Steel President Kosei Shindo listing a set of demands, including the petition to enter discussions with plaintiffs by Dec. 24. The same party previously visited Nippon Steel's head office on Nov. 12 with similar results.

Separately, South Korea's high court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries last month to compensate former wartime laborers, which could open the door to similar rulings in the future. Tokyo maintains that the issue of reparations to Korean wartime laborers was resolved by a 1965 treaty.

Meanwhile, the South Korean government has put together a task force designated to address the issues surrounding the Supreme Court rulings, according to a source close to the Foreign Ministry. The group will include members from the Office for Government Policy Coordination -- a body headed by Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon -- along with representatives from the foreign and justice ministries and other agencies.

"Through an examination by the relevant agencies and discussions with private-sector experts, they will form the government's policy direction as soon as possible," said the Foreign Ministry source. South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that a public-private committee is being considered.

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