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International relations

More wartime labor suits filed in South Korea against Japan firms

Wave of legal action comes in wake of top court ruling against Nippon Steel

Surviving family members of wartime laborers and other South Korean plaintiffs are taking advantage of a recent Supreme Court decision that went against Nippon Steel.

SEOUL (Kyodo) -- Lawsuits were filed in South Korea on Thursday seeking compensation from coke producer Nippon Coke & Engineering Co. and three other Japanese companies over wartime labor, the plaintiffs' lawyers said.

They are the first wartime labor compensation lawsuits against Japanese firms involving multiple plaintiffs since the South Korean Supreme Court in October ruled against steelmaker Nippon Steel Corp. over forced labor during World War II.

The remaining three firms affected in the eight suits are Nippon Steel, manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. and machinery manufacturer Nachi-Fujikoshi Corp. The suits have 31 plaintiffs, including surviving family members, the lawyers said.

Since the top court ruling, lower courts in South Korea have issued similar decisions against Japanese companies, making it likely the new lawsuits will result in similarly unfavorable outcomes for the companies sued.

Apart from the new lawsuits, at least 12 similar cases are pending in South Korea, involving about 920 plaintiffs, including families of former laborers who have passed away.

Excluding two cases that target a number of companies, the remaining 10 suits affect four Japanese companies: Nippon Steel, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Nachi-Fujikoshi and shipbuilder Hitachi Zosen Corp.

Nippon Steel changed its name this month from Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. Nippon Coke & Engineering was previously known as Mitsui Mining Co.

The South Koreans who have won their cases against Nippon Steel, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nachi-Fujikoshi have already had company assets in South Korea seized after the firms defied court decisions ordering them to compensate the plaintiffs.

But the plaintiffs have so far stopped short of asking the courts to sell them.

Japan maintains that the issue of compensation was settled under an agreement on the settlement of problems related to property and claims that was forged when Japan and South Korea established diplomatic ties in 1965.

But the South Korean top court said in its rulings in October and November that the right of victims of forced mobilization to seek compensation was not terminated by the accord.

The Japanese government has warned that it would retaliate if the business interests of Japanese firms were damaged by measures taken in the wake of the rulings in South Korea.

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