South Korea's Supreme Court on Thursday rejected appeals by Japanese machinery maker Nachi-Fujikoshi Corp. and upheld decisions by lower courts ordering the company to pay damages to South Koreans for wartime labor.

The rulings in three separate cases against Nachi-Fujikoshi come after the top court made similar decisions in December and this month on disputes related to forced labor that occurred during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, including against Japanese steelmaker Nippon Steel Corp. earlier this month.

Thursday's decisions were made amid an improvement in South Korea-Japan relations since Seoul announced a plan for resolving the wartime labor issue in March last year.

Plaintiffs and others hold up a banner outside South Korea's Supreme Court in Seoul on Jan. 25, 2024, ahead of a ruling by the top court that upheld decisions by lower courts ordering Japanese machinery maker Nachi-Fujikoshi Corp. to pay damages for wartime labor. (Kyodo)

Rejecting Nachi-Fujikoshi's claim that the statute of limitations for compensation claims has expired, the top court said plaintiffs have been able to seek compensation since it issued its initial rulings in 2018 ordering Japanese companies to pay damages to South Korean forced labor victims.

The top court ordered the company to pay between 80 million won ($59,900) and 100 million won in compensation each to 23 victims of the firm for forced labor. Only eight of them are still alive.

The plaintiffs in the three cases brought against the company are 22 women and one man as well as their relatives. The 23 victims claim they were brought to Japan from the Korean Peninsula under false pretenses and forced to work at the firm's munitions factory in the central Japan city of Toyama.

The majority of the women were teenagers when they were brought to Japan.

One of the surviving victims told reporters that her heart breaks as many other victims who started one of the three cases with her passed away.

"I wish Japan would apologize, admit its wrongdoing, and pay damages even a little bit to South Korea," the 92-year-old said.

Bilateral ties deteriorated after the top court in October and November 2018 upheld orders in separate judgments against Nippon Steel, then named Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp., and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., requiring that they pay damages for forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule.

Japan has said all issues stemming from its colonization of the Korean Peninsula were settled "completely and finally" under a 1965 bilateral agreement.

Following Thursday's rulings, Hiroyuki Namazu, director general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, lodged a protest with the South Korean Embassy in Tokyo, saying the latest outcome is "extremely regrettable and totally unacceptable," according to the ministry.

South Korea said in March last year that plaintiffs who have won lawsuits over forced labor during colonial rule would receive compensation from a South Korean government-backed foundation rather than directly from the firms.

But the foundation's financial position does not allow it to pay all damages to plaintiffs in a series of forced labor cases unless it receives more funding, according to sources familiar with the matter.

In December, the top court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., Nippon Steel and Hitachi Zosen Corp. to pay damages to South Koreans for wartime labor.

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