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Korean, Japanese lawyers demand action for forced labor victims

South Korean and Japanese legal professionals on Wednesday called for action to enforce Korean Supreme Court rulings holding Japanese firms responsible for compensating Koreans forced to work in their factories during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.
Six Korean and seven Japanese lawyers’ groups, as well as 123 individual lawyers and scholars from Japan, jointly released a statement urging the Japanese companies to accept the rulings and the Japanese government not to impede the compensation process.

“The forced labor issue has only been treated as a political and diplomatic matter,” the Korean lawyers’ groups said in a statement read at a press conference held in southern Seoul, stressing that it is instead a matter of “restoring the human rights of victims who were forced to work against their will.”

It marks the first time Korean and Japanese lawyers have joined forces to call for action for the victims forced to work at Japanese steel mills during Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of Korea since Korea’s Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling in October last year.

The participating lawyers’ groups include Lawyers for a Democratic Society from Korea and the Japan Lawyers Association for Freedom.

Japanese lawyers’ groups and legal professionals also read out a Japanese version of the same joint statement at a separate press conference in Tokyo.

On Oct. 30 last year, Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. to compensate four Koreans in the first such ruling on the forced labor issue.

No action, however, has been taken by Japan or the firm to comply with the court ruling.

Tokyo contends that victims’ individual rights to claim compensation from Japanese firms were relinquished under a 1965 bilateral treaty that normalized Korea-Japan relations.

Japan-Korea relations have been frayed ever since the ruling.

In an apparent act of retaliation, Japan tightened restrictions on exports to Korea and removed the country from its list of favored trading partners. This in turn led many Koreans to boycott Japanese goods and prompted the Korean government to terminate a military information-sharing pact between the two countries.

Amid an intensifying diplomatic row, National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang earlier proposed setting up a new fund to compensate the victims -- collecting donations from Korean and Japanese companies, as well as citizens of both countries.

Two victims of Japan’s wartime forced labor filed an appeal with the United Nations Human Rights Council last month, seeking to address the issue at an international forum and calling on the UN to intervene.

The UN has yet to respond to the appeal.

By Ock Hyun-ju (