SEOUL -- South Korea's former chief justice was questioned Friday over allegations he sought to influence politically sensitive cases involving Japanese companies -- a move that risks escalating already high tensions between Seoul and Tokyo.
Prosecutors grilled Yang Sung-tae over whether he met in private with lawyers representing Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in cases of compensation for forcing Koreans to work in their factories during World War II.
The prosecution suspects Yang also pressured justices in charge of the cases to suspend rulings so he could curry favor with the previous Park Geun-hye administration, which was concerned about protests from Japan.
Recent rulings against Japanese companies in South Korean courts over wartime laborers have further soured already bitter relations between Seoul and Tokyo. The escalating tension between the two U.S. allies risks harming collaboration on North Korea and other issues.
Yang, chief justice at the Supreme Court between 2011 and 2017, has denied the allegations. He insists that the prosecution is driven by its own biases.
"I just want that this case is resolved from a fair perspective, not being overwhelmed by prejudices," Yang, 70, told reporters in front of the Supreme Court before heading to the prosecutors' office. "I am sorry for making people worry about things that happened during my term."
The Supreme Court ruled last year that Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy should pay reparations to former laborers for their inhumane treatment.
Both the companies and the Japanese government have protested the rulings, saying the issue had been resolved in a bilateral treaty signed by the two countries. Tokyo claims that a 1965 treaty to restore diplomatic ties between the neighbors settled all issues arising from Japan's 35-year colonial rule (1910 to 1945) of the Korean Peninsula. The settlement included $300 million of compensation and $200 million of low-interest loans to South Korea.
Separately, the Seoul High Court ruled Friday that Hitachi Zosen should pay 50 million won (about $45,000) in damages to a 95-year-old plaintiff called Lee who was forced to work in the company's shipyard in Osaka between 1944 and 1945.
Another court on Wednesday ordered the seizure of local assets of Nippon Steel after the company refused to compensate several wartime laborers.
But the recent diplomatic problems go beyond wartime work issues.
South Korea decided in November to dissolve a foundation for so-called wartime comfort women. The two countries are also embroiled in a territorial dispute over tiny islands in the sea between the nations.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Thursday that the Japanese government needs to have a more humble attitude to the issue, saying politicians use it for their own domestic political purposes.
"Japan can express its complaints to the rulings of the South Korean court. But, it should understand that it cannot help but accept this," said Moon. "We need to seek wisdom on how to heal sufferings of the victims."