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International relations

South Korea court dismisses wartime labor case against Japan companies

Ruling was unexpected as it contradicts Supreme Court verdict in 2018

Ties between South Korea and Japan have soured since South Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 ordered Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate South Korean plaintiffs.

SEOUL -- A Seoul district court on Monday unexpectedly dismissed a compensation lawsuit filed by 85 Korean laborers forced to work for 16 Japanese companies during World War II.

The Seoul Central District Court rejected the complaint filed against the companies including Nippon Steel, Nissan Chemical, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Sumiseki Materials because South Korea and Japan signed a treaty in 1965 to resolve the issue.

The ruling was supposed to come on Thursday, but the court changed the date abruptly.

"Citizens of the Republic of Korea are limited to exercise their individual right to appeal with lawsuits against Japan or Japanese people by the treaty," said the court in a statement.

The ruling is another positive step toward healing ties between the two countries, which have been dogged for decades by territorial issues, and historical disputes stemming from Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula (1910-1945).

It follows another surprise in April, when the same court dismissed a compensation lawsuit filed by 20 former South Korean "comfort women" against the Japanese government. In that case, the court said that the government of Japan is not liable because it has state immunity that shields a nation from being sued in another country.

On the issue of laborers being forced to work for Japanese companies, South Korea and Japan agreed in 1965 to end their compensation issue during the colonial period as Tokyo promised to pay $300 million to Seoul and lend $200 million.

Monday's district court's conclusion was unexpected as the Supreme Court ruled in favor of forced laborers in similar cases in 2018. The top court upheld a lower court's rulings, which ordered Japanese companies, such as Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, to pay 100 million won of reparations each to the plaintiffs.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it will continue discussions with Japan to work out solutions to the labor issue.

"The government respects the court's ruling and victims' rights. Considering relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan, we are open to discuss reasonable solutions that can be accepted by both governments and all related parties," said the ministry in a statement.

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