SEOUL -- Lawyers representing South Koreans forced to work for Japanese corporations during World War II said Wednesday that they asked a court to sell assets seized from Nippon Steel and machine maker Nachi-Fujikoshi to secure compensation, a move that could spark backlash from Tokyo.
This is the first time the plaintiffs have begun the process to sell Japanese companies' assets. A court decision and delivery of the order to the companies is expected to take some time, however, with lawyers for the plaintiffs saying that it could take over three months until the actual sale.
"We hope that they will apologize to the victims and meet with us" out of court, the lawyers said as they aim to pressure the defendants before a decision reached.
Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was "taking the situation seriously."
"We absolutely cannot accept the wrongful sale of Japanese companies' assets," Kenji Kanasugi, the director-general of Asia and Oceania at the foreign ministry, told South Korea's deputy ambassador to Japan by phone.
The sale orders will target the Japanese companies' shares in their South Korean joint ventures. The plaintiffs plan to sell 194,000 shares worth 970 million won ($832,139) that Nippon Steel owns in POSCO-Nippon Steel RHF Joint Venture, a tie-up known as PNR with South Korean steelmaker Posco.
"It is extremely regrettable that actual damage could come of this" and "we will continue to respond appropriately in consultation with the Japanese government," the Japanese steelmaker said.
In October, South Korea's Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel to compensate four former wartime laborers 100 million won each, while Nachi-Fujikoshi was ordered to pay 80 million won to 100 million won each to more than a dozen workers or their survivors in a 2014 ruling by a lower court.
Although Nachi-Fujikoshi has yet to receive a decision on its final appeal, the machine maker had 76,000 shares worth 760 million won in South Korean joint venture Daesung Nachi Hydraulics seized by a court order in March.
In addition to pursuing asset seizures, the victims have brought additional lawsuits against Japanese companies. Former wartime laborers asked the courts in April to order Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to disclose its South Korean assets. The plaintiffs have already seized the Japanese company's trademarks and patents but are searching for more seizable assets. The company could face restrictions on financial transactions in the country if it ignores the court order. The same request was made of Nippon Steel in March.
Kanasugi demanded that the South Korean government quickly deal with the string of wartime labor lawsuits, an issue that Tokyo regards as having been solved by a 1965 agreement. Seoul has not responded to the cases.
Tokyo has informed Seoul that it is exploring all possible options in response. "We will have to take some sort of retaliatory measure should this damage Japanese companies," a government official said.