A South Korean district court on Monday dismissed a wartime labor compensation lawsuit brought by a group of Koreans against 16 Japanese companies including Nippon Steel Corp. and Mitsubishi Materials Corp.
The Seoul Central District Court said that while the plaintiffs have not lost their right to claims as individuals under a 1965 bilateral accord under which Japan provided grants and loans to South Korea, such a right cannot be exercised through lawsuits.
South Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 had ordered Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to compensate South Korean plaintiffs for forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
The top court had said then that the right of individuals to claim damages was not terminated by the accord, which stipulates that issues relating to property and claims between the two countries and their peoples have been settled "completely and finally."
"We cannot say that an individual's right to claims completely expired under the agreement but it is right to interpret that a South Korean national is limited in exercising it against Japan or a Japanese national," the Seoul court said in a statement.
According to the court, a total of 85 plaintiffs consisting of former Japanese wartime laborers and their bereaved family members filed the lawsuit in May 2015, demanding a combined 8.6 billion won ($7.74 million) in damages.
A lawyer who supports the plaintiffs said Monday that the court's ruling was unjust as it went against the higher court's decision, and that an appeal would be filed immediately.
Among the other firms named as defendants in the case were Nishimatsu Construction Co., Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. and Sumiseki Materials Co.
Ties between South Korea and Japan have soured since the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court rulings, with court proceedings under way to sell off the Japanese companies' assets in South Korea to compensate the plaintiffs.
In Tokyo, Japan's top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, said the country will continue to closely watch developments regarding each lawsuit.
"Currently, Japan-South Korea relations are in a dire situation," Kato said. "We think it is important for South Korea to responsibly work toward resolving outstanding issues between the two countries and we are paying close attention to (whether there will be) specific proposals (from Seoul) to that end."
The lawsuit in question was originally brought against 17 Japanese companies, but one of them, a construction company, was dropped from the suit last month.
The case languished in the court for years as the Japanese defendants refused to accept court papers. But in March, the court posted relevant information on its website in a process known as notification by public announcement, allowing the case to proceed.
May 28 was the case's first hearing.
The court had scheduled the ruling for Thursday, but notified parties in the case earlier Monday that the ruling date had been moved up.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Monday it respects both the Seoul court's ruling and the plaintiffs' rights, and will continue consulting with Japan to discuss rational solutions that both governments and all the parties concerned can accept.
Japan has maintained the position that the 1965 bilateral agreement settled all claims related to its 35-year colonial rule of the peninsula.