A South Korean district court on Wednesday dismissed a wartime labor-related damages lawsuit against Japanese steelmaker Nippon Steel Corp., on the grounds that the plaintiffs launched the suit after a statute of limitations on the civil case had expired.

The same Seoul Central District Court judge dismissed a similar suit against another Japanese company, Mitsubishi Materials Corp., last month on the same grounds.

After the South Korean Supreme Court in 2018 ordered Nippon Steel and another Japanese company to compensate plaintiffs over forced labor during World War II, a spate of rulings against Japanese firms followed in lower courts. But this year, plaintiffs in similar cases have lost in district courts, signaling disagreement among judges on this matter.

A lawyer for plaintiffs speaks to the media after the Seoul Central District Court dismissed a wartime labor-related damages lawsuit against Japanese steelmaker Nippon Steel Corp. on Sept. 8, 2021. (Kyodo)  

The two suits were filed in 2019 and 2017, respectively, by relatives of laborers during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. In both cases, Judge Pak Song In determined that plaintiffs had lost their right to seek claims in 2015.

Three years earlier, in 2012, the Supreme Court, in a groundbreaking decision, said the right of individuals such as former wartime laborers to pursue compensation from Japan was not nullified by a 1965 agreement between Japan and South Korea.

The Civil Code in South Korea stipulates that victims lose their right to claim damages if they do not seek claims within three years of discovering harm. In the two district court rulings, Pak saw the statute of limitations begin to run in 2012.

After relevant cases were sent back to appeals courts for retrial following the 2012 landmark decision, the Supreme Court in 2018 ordered Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. to compensate groups of plaintiffs.

Based on the October 2018 ruling against Nippon Steel -- the first of the two handed down by the top court that year -- an appeals court in Gwangju in the country's southwest has ruled that the statute of limitations on wartime labor compensation claims began to run in 2018.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the future on when the clock began ticking on the statute of limitations regarding this issue.

Ties between Japan and South Korea, already strained largely over historical issues, have worsened since the 2018 top court rulings.

Japan maintains that issues relating to property and claims between the two countries and their peoples stemming from the colonial rule have been settled "completely and finally" under the 1965 bilateral accord, under which Japan provided grants and loans to South Korea.

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