SEOUL -- As he handed down a ruling denying compensation to South Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II, Judge Kim Yang-ho said that South Korea's international reputation was also at stake in the case.
Kim, a senior judge with the Seoul Central District Court, on Monday dismissed lawsuits against 16 Japanese companies filed by 85 South Koreans or their family members. The plaintiffs were seeking redress for unpaid labor performed for companies including Nissan Chemical and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
In ruling against the plaintiffs, the court found that the agreement South Korea and Japan signed in 1965 establishing diplomatic relations precluded lawsuits by individuals against Japanese entities.
Kim said that South Korea has to balance relations with the world's major powers and that, in its ruling, the court had factored in the risk of harm to the relationship with Japan. The two countries share values of liberal democracy, the court said, and any deterioration in their ties could also damage relations with the U.S., South Korea's main security partner.
He also raised the possibility that rulings against Japan could later be overturned by an international arbitrator, which could "cause grave damage to our national interest ... and undermine the standing of and trust in our judiciary," Kim said.
This week's ruling, and a recent decision by another South Korean court on the issue of comfort women, mark a surprising departure from a landmark 2018 Supreme Court ruling that ordered Nippon Steel to pay compensation to individual litigants. It also opens a door for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to attempt to soothe relations with Japan, which have been prickly during his term, as he travels this week to the G-7 Summit in Britain.
The ruling immediately garnered criticism. A petition on the website of the presidential Blue House called for Kim to be removed from the bench, accusing him of rendering a verdict that is "against the Korean people."
"Is he really a South Korean?" asked a headline in the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.
The petition has drawn more than 288,000 signatures since it was posted on Tuesday. It takes particular issue with Kim's consideration of international affairs in his decision, contending that his mention of relations with Japan and the U.S. are evidence that his ruling "was not based on the word of the law, but on his own political motivations."
However, more than relations with other countries, the court may have been motivated to signal to the Moon administration that a lasting solution to historical disputes ought to come from the government rather than the judiciary, argues Lee Young-chae, a professor at Keisen University in Tokyo.
"I don't think the court was really thinking about the Moon administration's foreign policy position," Lee told Nikkei Asia.
"The court was placed under a significant burden by the administration's inaction toward seeking a diplomatic solution, in both the rulings on forced labor and comfort women, as all responsibility to handle these issues fell on the judiciary. These rulings are an attempt to move that responsibility back on to the government," Lee added.
Moon's Democratic Party is currently focused on domestic priorities ahead of next year's presidential election. The party's popularity has tumbled in recent months due to a series of corruption and property speculation scandals involving party members and hiccups in securing COVID-19 vaccines.
This week, the party announced it would seek the dismissal of 12 lawmakers found to have engaged in unfair property deals. And after a slow initial rollout, the government has prioritized the national vaccine campaign, which has gathered momentum of late, with more than 10 million people, roughly one fifth of the country, having received at least one shot.
The interconnected goals of economic recovery and vaccinations are likely to trump Moon's desire for improved relations with Japan throughout the rest of his term.
"It falls to the Moon administration to triangulate among South Korea's civil society, judiciary and foreign policy interests. It is unclear whether Moon will take on this responsibility in his final year in office, especially as the Suga government has shown little willingness for finessing a political compromise," Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told Nikkei.
While in the U.K., Moon will also have to balance shows of support for his American ally with a desire to maintain productive relations with China, South Korea's largest trading partner. President Joe Biden is on his first foreign trip as president and has signaled eagerness to rally allies to confront authoritarian states such as China and Russia.
"This is a defining question of our time: Can democracies come together to deliver real results for our people in a rapidly changing world?" Biden asked in a Washington Post commentary before departing for the U.K.
This week, the foreign ministers of China and South Korea spoke by phone. In a statement, Beijing accused the U.S. of a "Cold War mentality" that "stirs up confrontation." The statement said, "China and [South Korea] should know well the rights and wrongs, stick to the correct position, abide by political consensus and never be misled."
Moon's government has said he has no plans for an official meeting with Suga in Britain, but the two leaders could have an informal conversation. Lee, the professor, said Japan will not take the recent court ruling as the final word on the two sides' historical dispute and Suga is unlikely to bring up the issue.
Lee added, "Instead, it seems like Japan is more likely to bide its time while keeping a poker face."