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International relations

South Koreans ready more wartime labor suits as clock ticks

Lawyer groups target more Japanese companies before April 30 deadline

A group of lawyers representing former wartime laborers raise their fists at a news conference in Gwangju, South Korea on March 19.   © Kyodo

SEOUL -- South Koreans who were forced to work for Japanese corporations during World War II are rushing to file additional lawsuits before the statute of limitations runs out.

Attorneys representing a group of wartime laborers told reporters Tuesday that they will file a new suit next month. They will recruit more former workers and surviving relatives to join them in the next few weeks.

The news conference took place in Gwangju in southwestern South Korea, a region where more than 1,000 people may fit the description. The attorneys were the same ones who represented former members of the Korean Women's Volunteer Labor Corps, which sent young women to work at various Japanese employers during the war, and won a Supreme Court verdict in November ordering Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay reparations.

The lawyers said they "cannot predict" the scale of the class action or the total number of companies they will sue. This follows a similar announcement in January from a separate group of lawyers representing wartime laborers who said they will file a suit against Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal in April.

The April target stems from a decision handed down by a court in Gwangju last December, which states that new lawsuits on wartime labor must as a general rule be filed within six months of an Oct. 30 ruling against Nippon Steel by the Supreme Court. In certain cases, the time limit can be extended to three years.

The lawyers taking on Mitsubishi Heavy have already petitioned to seize patents and trademarks belonging to the company. They also indicated plans to seize assets in Europe.

"It has become difficult to reach an amicable settlement with the company," said one attorney. "There's no other choice but to take forcible measures." Another lawyer said they will bring up the case at the United Nations as a human rights issue.

Lawyers had initially sought to settle with the Japanese companies, but both the corporations and the Japanese government maintain that the wartime labor issue was settled by a 1965 treaty with South Korea.

Some members of the South Korean government want to set up a foundation to distribute cash to former wartime laborers. But the presidential office is hesitant on this approach, leaving efforts for a diplomatic solution in the air.

Tokyo has requested that the two countries discuss the issue at an intergovernmental conference. Although Seoul says it is considering that option, it has not committed to anything.

With the two governments showing no signs of progress, the lawyers are trying to ramp up the pressure against Japanese manufacturers, including by pleading their case to the international community.

Since late October, Mitsubishi Heavy and Nippon Steel have been ordered to pay damages to plaintiffs in three cases. Seven more cases are pending against Nachi-Fujikoshi and Hitachi Zosen.

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