SEOUL -- South Koreans forced to work for Japanese businesses before and during World War II have the right to seek compensation despite a postwar settlement, President Moon Jae-in said Thursday, in a dramatic reversal of the government's previous position.
"An agreement between nations cannot abridge the rights of individuals," Moon told a news conference marking his 100th day in office. This is true even of a 1965 agreement between Japan and South Korea that ostensibly resolved all damage claims stemming from Japan's 35-year colonial rule, he suggested.
Both governments had long pointed to the agreement as evidence that the matter was settled, at least on a diplomatic level. Former laborers suing Japanese companies for compensation have lost in Japan, and were consistently ruled against in South Korea as well. But the South Korean Supreme Court upended that status quo in May 2012, ruling that former laborers' rights to seek damages in civil court were intact despite the accord. Claimants seeking compensation have since won judgments against companies including Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
Moon confirmed Thursday that the Supreme Court ruling represents the government's position, becoming the country's first president to take such a stance.
This is a remarkable shift on Seoul's part. In 2005, a commission chaired by the prime minister concluded that the $300 million in aid Tokyo gave Seoul under the 1965 agreement should be viewed as taking into consideration compensation for forced laborers, putting the responsibility on South Korea's government to pay out an appropriate amount to victims. Moon was a member of that commission as a top aide to then-President Roh Moo-hyun. He did not respond when asked Thursday about his thoughts on that conclusion.
The Foreign Ministry submitted the commission's findings to the Supreme Court last November. On Thursday, a representative said the ministry shared the president's stance on the matter, stating that his remarks were "rooted in the government's fundamental position on matters of history."
Up in the air
This change of interpretation raises risks for businesses. A society that aids former forced laborers was aware of 15 lawsuits against Japanese companies outstanding as of Aug. 8, and South Korea claims that there have been 220,000 victims overall.
A Mitsubishi Heavy Industry representative said the company "has nothing new to say" on the matter, calling it "something to be discussed between governments."
The question now is how South Korea's Supreme Court will respond to this turn of events. Under the previous, more conservative government, the court had refrained from ruling on appeals from Japanese companies that lower courts had ruled against.
It is still possible the court could now hear those appeals and rule in the companies' favor. But some expect Moon's declaration could sway the court's decisions on when to hear cases and how to rule, given the broad influence South Korean presidents traditionally have over governmental affairs. Moon will also have the opportunity to appoint the court's chief justice in September, when the incumbent reaches the end of his term.
Moon's government is already reconsidering a 2015 accord on the issue of military "comfort women," which also supposedly resolved that matter "finally and irreversibly." A report due out as soon as the end of the year is widely expected to demand that Japan take further steps to atone for its wartime behavior. Seoul's latest about-face on forced labor further calls into question matters that, under South Korea's recent succession of conservative governments, both sides regarded as settled law.