Seoul court rules against plaintiffs in Japanese wartime labour case

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SEOUL – A South Korean court on Tuesday ruled against the family of a man who was enslaved during World War II in a damages suit filed against a Japanese company.

The ruling comes as the South seeks closer ties with Tokyo to counter North Korea, and about a month after Seoul said it was considering compensating victims of Japan’s forced wartime labour without the direct participation of Japanese companies.

Japan and South Korea are both democracies, market economies and US allies, but their relationship has been strained for decades over Tokyo’s brutal 1910 to 1945 colonial rule.

Around 780,000 Koreans were conscripted into forced labour by Japan during its 35-year occupation, according to official data from Seoul, not including women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese troops.

In 2019, five family members of a victim – surnamed Kim – filed a civil suit against Japanese company Nishimatsu seeking about 70 million won (S$73,240) in compensation.

The family members said the man died two years after first being pressed into labour for the company and that he had suffered mental anguish due to Japan’s “illegal colonial rule”.

But the Seoul Central District Court concluded on Tuesday that the statute of limitations on the case had already expired, ruling against the plaintiffs.

“All of the plaintiffs’ claims are dismissed,” the court said in a statement.

Tokyo insists a 1965 treaty – which saw the two countries restore diplomatic ties with a reparations package of about US$800 million (S$1.06 billion) in grants and cheap loans – settled all claims between the two relating to the colonial period.

Despite their rocky history, Japan and South Korea have recently stepped up joint military exercises with the United States, and the three countries joined in imposing fresh sanctions on North Korea in December over a record-breaking flurry of missile tests.

Japan shook up its defence strategy in December with a pledge to increase spending to two per cent of GDP by 2027, adding more muscular capabilities in the face of a rising China and an unpredictable North Korea. AFP

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