South Korea's Supreme Court has decided to uphold a ruling ordering a Japanese steelmaker to pay compensation to four Koreans the company forced to work for it during World War Two, when the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule.
Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation, will be required to pay each victim around 87-thousand U.S. dollars for unpaid work.
In its decision Tuesday, the Supreme Court said that a 1965 agreement between Korea and Japan did not terminate the right of individuals to reparations.
The Japanese government has been arguing that the agreement, "Concerning the Settlement of Problems in Regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation" draws a line under the two countries' history.
In efforts to normalize diplomatic relations with Seoul, Tokyo paid South Korea five hundred million dollars.
Seoul's top court also took issue with a Japanese court's 2003 ruling that claimed colonization is not illegal and that the use of forced labor was not illegal either at the time.
Those notions, the Supreme Court said, go against constitutional values.
The Japanese firm had argued that legally too much time has gone by and that it is no longer responsible, but the court called that claim an abuse of rights and a violation of the principle of good faith.
To the ruling, Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono released a statement expressing deep regret. The ruling is unacceptable, he said, because it fundamentally shakes up the legislative grounds of Seoul-Tokyo ties.
He also strongly urged the South Korean government to immediately take appropriate measures or Japan will do all it can, including an international trial, to defend what he called the Japanese firm's "legal" economic activities.
South Korea, right after the ruling was announced, held a meeting between related ministries and the Prime Minister, where they said that the government respects the court's ruling.
They also unveiled plans to form a group of experts and officials to form the government's overall response to the ruling, and said that they hope to develop future-oriented Seoul-Tokyo ties.
It's expected to be a rough patch for the two countries, but a Japan expert says it could help if the two sides can see eye to eye on their previous agreement.
(Korean - / )
""Yes, part of the money given to South Korea back in 1965 was for the victims of forced labor. But the money was not legal compensation. It was simply part of the money given to South Korea to establish ties and economic cooperation.
Thus, because South Korea sees the whole colonization as 'illegal,' the court decided that legal compensation should be given to the victims. If that difference can be reconciled with Japan's point of view, the their ties may not become so frosty."
Though only one of the four plaintiffs is still alive, there is hope that this could positively affect many other on-going and potential trials involving Japanese firms and formerly enslaved Korean workers.
Lee Ji-won, Arirang News.