A statue of a laborer taken to work at a Japanese company during World War II in front of Yongsan Station in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun
A statue of a laborer taken to work at a Japanese company during World War II in front of Yongsan Station in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

In the latest twist in a legal-diplomatic saga that has sparked a war of words between Seoul and Tokyo, more than 1,000 South Koreans filed a suit on Thursday demanding financial compensation for their forced labor in World War II.

However, the target of their lawsuits was not Tokyo – it was their own government in Seoul.

The lawsuit filed Thursday joins three previous lawsuits filed on the same issue. In total, this means that 1,386 former South Korean forced laborers and some of their families are now seeking 100 million won ($88,500) each in compensation from Seoul.

While the laborers claim they were forced to work for Japanese firms during World War II at a time when the peninsula was a Japanese colony and when a Korean state did not formally exist, their demands for payment from the Seoul government appear to have firm grounds. Those grounds are rooted in recent diplomatic history.

In 1965, the then-South Korean government received some $800 million in compensation from Tokyo as part of a diplomatic normalization package. However, Seoul did not pay the victims; instead, it used the funds for economic development.

Thursday’s move follows a South Korean Supreme Court ruling in October that Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp should pay three Korean plaintiffs for their wartime forced labor.

The Korean judicial decision sparked fury in Japan, where government officials, including Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, insisted that the matter had been settled, government-to-government, in 1965. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, however, has stood behind the court’s decision.

Early this month, lawyers for the Korean plaintiffs told foreign reporters in Tokyo said that if the Japanese firms fail to pay, then assets owned by those firms in Korea could be seized.

According to Korean media reports Friday, working-level foreign ministry officials from both governments will meet on Monday in Seoul an effort to resolve the impasse.

Tricky judicial, political questions

Meanwhile, the latest situation places the Korean courts in a ticklish position.

If they rule that Seoul does, indeed, owe the former laborers compensation, Tokyo would appear to be absolved of financial responsibilities in the matter. Such a ruling could also raise questions over the recent Supreme Court decision.

On the other hand, if they find that Seoul has no responsibility, and instead places the onus for compensation on Japan, the current diplomatic crisis will deepen.

While there is a de jure separation of powers between the executive branch and the judiciary in Korea, the government may well exert influence over judicial and law enforcement bodies.

In recent weeks, a number of pro-North Korea groups have rallied in Seoul – moves that are proscribed under the harshly anti-communist National Security Law. While such groups were not visible under conservative administrations, under the liberal Moon administration which seeks deep engagement with Pyongyang, they have appeared openly without any apparent sanction.

“Political considerations are not what the court should concern itself with, though they may take public opinion into account,” said Michael Breen, Seoul-based author of The New Koreans.

“This is a very interesting development, as I think it is going to require leadership on this issue that we have not seen since Korea became democratic, saying: ‘This is a democratic country that has apologized and paid compensation, so stop all these attacks over something that is 70 years old.’ You need a leadership capable of doing this.”

It is unclear whether the Moon administration, which claims to be guided by public opinion – which is often emotively anti-Japanese – would be willing to take that tack. Still, it does have one escape valve.

The Seoul administration which signed the 1965 treaty and used the Japanese funds was headed by ex-general Park Chung-hee. Park was the father of jailed ex-president Park Geun-hye, whose impeachment in 2016 paved the way for the Moon administration to take power.

Many members of the current government despise the late, authoritarian Park Sr, and could, feasibly, place the blame for the current situation upon his policies.

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