SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered a Japanese steelmaker on Tuesday to compensate Korean men forced to toil in its factory for Japan’s World War II efforts, a landmark ruling that threatened to intensify friction between the two key American allies in Asia.
The judges upheld a lower-court ruling that Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal must pay 100 million won, or about $88,700, to each of four South Korean men who said they were subject to forced labor for the company between 1941 and 1943. Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 until Japan’s surrender in 1945.
The case has been closely followed in both South Korea and Japan, which have been locked in highly sensitive territorial and other disputes rooted in the colonial era. Japan insists that all matters concerning allegations of forced labor were settled under agreements that established bilateral diplomatic ties in 1965.
But on Tuesday, the South Korean court ruled that those deals should not impede individual victims’ right to seek redress.
If the Japanese company refuses to pay the compensation, the plaintiffs and their families could ask local courts to seize its assets in South Korea. The verdict could also open the floodgates for other victims and their families to file class-action lawsuits against Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal and other Japanese companies accused of capitalizing on forced labor.
“I am the only one still alive to see this day come,” Lee Chun-shik, 94, one of the plaintiffs, told reporters outside the courthouse on Tuesday.
Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal called the court’s decision “deeply regrettable” and said it contradicted the 1965 agreement not to raise claims that “arose during wartime.”
The company “will carefully review the decision of the Supreme Court of Korea in considering its next steps, taking into account the Japanese government’s responses on this matter and other factors,” it said in a statement.