The latest verdict on Mitsubishi Heavy Industries was widely expected after the Supreme Court ruled in late October that another Japanese company must compensate four Korean men for similar colonial-era forced labor. The Oct. 30 ruling, which followed more than five years of deliberation at the court, was the first of its kind.
The back-to-back rulings in South Korea are threatening to undermine relations with Japan, which says all compensation issues were settled when Tokyo and Seoul signed a treaty in 1965 that restored diplomatic ties. The rulings are expected to affect similar lawsuits pending in South Korean courts.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said that the ruling was "extremely regrettable and absolutely unacceptable." Mitsubishi called it "deeply regrettable." "The ruling not only imposes unfair damages to Japanese companies but fundamentally overturns the legal foundation of friendly and cooperative relations that Japan and South Korea have built since the 1965 normalization," Kono said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga demanded South Korea retract the decision immediately, warning that Japan could consider "all options" including taking the issue to the International Court of Justice. Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba also summoned South Korean Ambassador Lee Su-hoon to protest the ruling.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry called the Japanese criticism "very regrettable," urging it to refrain from "excessively responding to" rulings by South Korea's judiciary branch. Spokesman Noh Kyu-duk said South Korea will still work toward building future-oriented relations with Japan.
Japan made similar protests when the South Korean court ruled last month that Japan's Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. should provide compensation of 100 million won ($87,680) to each of the four plaintiffs.
It's unlikely the two Japanese companies would follow the South Korean rulings, which are final and cannot be appealed. Lawyers for forced laborers for the Japanese steelmaker plan to take legal steps to seize its assets in South Korea, according to South Korean media reports.
Seoul and Tokyo, both key U.S. allies, are closely linked to each other economically and culturally. But their historical and territorial disputes stemming from Japan's colonial occupation have often complicated Washington's efforts to strengthen trilateral cooperation to deal with North Korea's nuclear threat and China's growing influence in the region.
In two separate verdicts involving 10 forced laborers or their bereaved family members, the Supreme Court said Thursday that Mitsubishi must provide 80 million to 150 million won ($71,190-$133,510) in compensation to each of the plaintiffs.
The court said that the 1965 treaty cannot prevent individual rights to seek compensations for forced labor because Japanese companies' use of such laborers were "acts of illegality against humanity" that were linked to Tokyo's "illegal" colonial rule and its war of aggression.
Outside the court, one of the aging plaintiffs, Kim Sung-joo, raised her hands with her family members and supporters in celebration of the ruling. But she also recounted what she described as a bitter memory of working at a Mitsubishi factory in Japan.
"One of my fingers was cut off (while working). I spilled my blood and cried a lot. I cried because I didn't know why I had that kind of hardship in Japan," Kim, sitting in a wheelchair, told reporters.
After its liberation from Japan, the Korean Peninsula was divided into U.S.-allied South Korea and Soviet-backed North Korea. Many in both Koreas still harbor strong resentment against the Japanese rule, during which South Korean historians say hundreds of thousands of Koreans were forced to work as laborers for Japanese companies or sex slaves for Japanese soldiers in wartime brothels.
When South Korea and Japan signed the 1965 treaty, South Korea received more than $800 million in economic aid and loans from Japan and used the money to rebuild its infrastructure and economy devastated by the Korean War.
Last week, South Korea announced a plan to dissolve a Japan-funded foundation aimed at compensating former sex slaves in South Korea. The move, which would effectively kill a contentious 2015 deal to settle the impasse over the sexual slavery, was criticized by Japan.
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.