The $89,000 verdict that separates Japan and South Korea

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SEOUL, South Korea — Until recently, few had heard of PNR, a South Korean company that turns steel mill sludge into iron. Then a 94-year-old man named Lee Chun-shik tried to settle an old debt.

Mr. Lee grew up during the Japanese occupation of Korea and as a teenager was taken to Japan and forced to work for a steel mill, essentially as a slave. Today, this steelmaker is the largest in Japan, Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metalwith assets worldwide, including $9.6 million worth of stock in PNR.

Mr Lee has asked a court in South Korea to seize some of those actions as compensation for what he endured so long ago – and the court did so last month.

The decision is now at the center of a bitter dispute that has challenged the foundation of diplomatic relations between America’s key allies in Asia, driving them apart even as Washington tries to build a united front against China’s rise. and a nuclear-armed North. Korea.

At stake is a question that has strained relations since the end of World War II: Has Japan accepted full responsibility for occupying Korea and mobilizing Koreans for its war effort? ?

Although the two nations have bickered for decades over their painful shared history, the current falling out is perhaps one of the most serious to date. And it comes as the Trump administration is seen in the region as inattentive and unwilling to act as a mediator.

“Unless both sides pool their wisdom to find a solution, this will get worse and could become a full-fledged diplomatic war over history,” said Lee Won-deog, a researcher at Kookmin University in Seoul.

The countries also exchanged sharp accusations about encounters between their armed forces. In December, Japan said a South Korean warship had locked targeting radar on a Japanese military aircraft. Seoul denied the accusation and accused Japan of sending low-flying planes over its warships.

Rising tensions have destabilized many who see cooperation between Japan and South Korea – both of which host US bases – as vital to stability in the region.

In remarks before leaving his post last month, Lt. Gen. Jerry P. Martinez, the commander of US forces in Japan, urged the countries to resolve their differences. “The way you overcome history is through dialogue and you look to the future to try to make things better,” he said.

According to South Korean estimates, as many as 7.8 million Koreans were conscripted as forced laborers or soldiers during Japan’s imperial expansion before and during World War II. They worked hard in mines and munitions factories across Asia and fought alongside Japanese troops. Women were sent to army-run brothels.

After the war, South Korea demanded compensation on behalf of these workers. In the pact establishing diplomatic relations between the two nations in 1965, Japan provided $300 million in aid and $200 million in loans.

But most workers received nothing. Instead, the military dictatorship that ruled South Korea at the time used the bulk of the funds to build highways, dams and factories, kickstarting the country’s industrialization.

Credit…Keystone, via Getty Images

It was only after the first democratic elections in South Korea in the late 1980s and early 1990s that many workers began to seek damages, first in Japanese courts and since 2000 in South Korea.

The campaign came to a head in October, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel to pay $89,000 each to Mr. Lee and the families of three other plaintiffs. a historic decision pave the way for former workers and their descendants to claim the local assets of Japanese companies. A lower court ordered the seizure of the PNR shares in January.

“I am happy with the decision, but I am sad when I think of my colleagues,” Mr Lee said, referring to the other plaintiffs, who all died during the long legal battle.

The Supreme Court followed with two similar judgments in November against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. At least a dozen cases involving 70 Japanese companies – including Toshiba, Panasonic and Nissan – are pending in the lower courts, which have began to speak out in favor complainants.

Japan reacted with outrage, pointing to language in the 1965 treaty that describes all claims arising from the colonial era as “completely and finally settled.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has warned South Korea not to enforce what he said are “impossible” judgments, hinting at economic retaliation if it does.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in responded that Japanese leaders were escalating tensions for political reasons. “The Japanese government needs to become more humble on this issue,” he said.

The stakes are high. A South Korean commission in the 2000s confirmed the identities of 149,000 living and dead victims of forced labor, and researchers say some 300 operating Japanese companies can be traced to those who exploited these workers.

Most do not have significant holdings in South Korea, but there is a risk Tokyo will respond with sanctions if assets are redistributed, disrupting a trade relationship worth more than $82 billion in 2017.

Privately, Japanese officials argued that the rulings cast doubt on South Korea’s reliability. For many Japanese, they represent the latest attempt to punish their nation for actions for which it has already apologized and, in this case, paid reparations.

But for many South Koreans, the decisions represent vindication after a prolonged struggle against powerful forces, including their own government.

Despite the help of Japanese activists, the workers lost their lawsuits in Japan, where courts ruled that their claims were settled by the 1965 treaty. South Korean courts initially echoed this position.

“Governments got what they wanted. The victims were victimized again,” said Lee Hee-ja, 75, a South Korean activist whose father died while forced to work for the Japanese military.

But in 2004 the workers got a break – a court ordered the South Korean Foreign Ministry to release documents related to the talks behind the 1965 treaty. This led to the creation of a national commission, which has concluded that the treaty did not cover “unlawful acts against humanity”.

The commission recognized that much of the $300 million paid by Japan should have gone to the workers, and the South Korean government then distributed $547 million to 72,600 people.

Yet many have received nothing. “Our lives were shattered, but no one cared about us,” said Yi Won-soo, 87, who was forced to work in a Mitsubishi factory at 14.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that workers had the right to sue Japanese companies despite the 1965 treaty and ordered lower courts to reconsider earlier verdicts. But workers continued to face obstacles.

The Foreign Office has submitted an opinion to the Supreme Court warning of an “irreversible catastrophe” if Japanese assets are seized, citing fears that South Korea could be labeled a nation that flouts international law and breaks its promises.

It took so long for the Supreme Court to rule again that some accused former president Park Geun-hye of conspire with the court delay a decision or find a way to reverse the 2012 decision.

Prosecutors are investigating this allegation charged the former chief justiceYang Sung-tae, Monday.

When the court finally ruled for the workers in October, eight of the 14 sitting judges were newcomers appointed by Mr Moon, who took over from Ms Park after her impeachment and impeachment for corruption in 2017.

Mr. Moon has long supported the right of workers to seek compensation from Japanese companies; almost two decades ago, as a lawyer, he represented one of the first groups of workers to file complaints.

As president, he called for a diplomatic settlement.

Some have proposed that the two governments establish a fund for victims, with contributions from Japanese companies as well as South Korean companies that benefited from Japanese aid in 1965.

Mr Abe’s government, however, has said Japan does not want to set up funds or pay more. Last month, a spokesman for Mr Moon said a fund would be “unreasonable”, adding that the High Court ruling should be respected.

For now, that means the next decision could be made by the court in the South Korean port city of Pohang which seized PNR’s shares on January 9. The court is expected to sell them to pay the $89,000 awarded to Mr. Lee, but his lawyers have yet to ask him to take that final step.

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