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International relations

Seoul court orders Nippon Steel to compensate wartime workers

Steelmaker must pay reparations to 4 Koreans forced to work during WWII, court rules

Supporters of laborers forced to work during Japanese colonial rule protest in front of the Supreme Court in Seoul on Oct. 30.   © Kyodo

SEOUL -- South Korea's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered a Japanese steelmaker to pay compensation of 100 million won ($88,000) each to four Koreans who were forced to work for the company during World War II.

The verdict adds to the longstanding tensions between Seoul and Tokyo, at a time when the neighbors are faced with the North Korea nuclear issue and the economic fallout of the U.S.-China trade war. Some analysts say the ruling risks complicating operations for Japanese companies in South Korea, especially those involved with similar cases.

Some 70 Japanese companies are involved in 15 similar cases, and may now face similar rulings. They include Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Yokohama Rubber, Sumiseki Holdings, and Hitachi Zosen.

The court said that Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal is liable for making the payments to the laborers for their unpaid work between 1941 and 1943. It dismissed the company's argument that Japan paid all necessary compensation in 1965 under a treaty signed by the two countries, ruling that the agreement do not apply to individual reparations.

The treaty normalized ties between the countries following 35 years of Japanese colonial rule in Korea (1910-1945). Japan argues that the issue of Koreans being forced to work for Japanese companies was resolved in that agreement.

Nippon Steel said the ruling was "extremely disappointing" and went against Tokyo's view of the 1965 treaty. The company added it would make an appropriate response in line with the Japanese government's next move. In a statement, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said the verdict was "unacceptable" and would overturn the legal basis on which the nations had built "friendly ties."

"It is inevitable that this will tarnish trust between governments," said Jin Chang-soo, a senior researcher at Sejong Institute, a private think tank. "It's up to the South Korean government how it can manage this."

The two countries have a bitter history. The governments are still at loggerheads over issues stemming from the Japanese military's use of wartime "comfort women," and are engaged in a long-running dispute of rocky islets in the Sea of Japan known as Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean.

The workers originally filed their lawsuit with a district court in 2005. Tuesday's ruling had been delayed for five years as the government of previous President Park Geun-hye is believed to have pressured the court to put off the ruling, fearing it could hurt relations with Tokyo.

Three of the four plaintiffs have died since the suit was filed.

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