S.Korea forced labour victim receives “compensation” from Japanese firm, family lawyer says

By Thomson Reuters Feb 20, 2024 | 1:56 AM

By Jack Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – The family of a South Korean man forced to work for a Japanese company during Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation has received money from the Japanese firm he worked for, marking the first time a forced labour victim has secured such funds in a legal case.

South Korea’s Supreme Court has upheld a series of rulings ordering Japanese firms to compensate its citizens who were forced to work for them, drawing protests from Japan, but until now Japanese firms have refused to pay compensation.

Tokyo says the rulings for compensation violate diplomatic agreements aimed at resolving the issue.

The family of the South Korean, who died in 2019 and was identified only by his surname Lee, received a deposit of 60 million won ($44,800) from Hitachi Zosen, the family lawyer said on Tuesday.

Lawyer Lee Min, who described the money as “compensation”, said it was the first case in which money was paid by a Japanese company to a forced labour victim.

Hitachi Zosen, a major heavy machinery and engineering company, deposited the money with the court pending the outcome of the case.

A spokesperson for Hitachi Zosen said it was “extremely regrettable” that the court released the money to the family.

In December, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Lee family after it had sought 50 million won plus interest.

The Supreme Court has also ruled for the victims or their families in cases brought against companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel Corp. None of these firms have said they accept the ruling or paid.

The issue of wartime forced labour and Korean women forced to work at Japanese military brothels have long soured ties between the neighbours and continue to complicate efforts to improve relations.

The Lee family had been seeking compensation directly from the Japanese companies despite a decision by President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has been trying to mend ties with Tokyo, to create a foundation funded by South Korean companies to compensate them.

The decision to set up a foundation drew a backlash from some victims and critics who accused the Yoon government of capitulating to Japan.

Tokyo welcomed the move and said while Japanese firms would not be expected to pay into the fund they could donate to it if they wanted.

The Supreme Court has also ruled that the labourers’ right to reparation was not terminated by a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries that Tokyo says settled the matter of forced labour and wartime sex abuse.

($1 = 1,337.9900 won)

(Reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul and Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo; Editing by Ed Davies and Michael Perry)