President Yoon Suk Yeol on Wednesday urged businesses in South Korea and Japan to cooperate in paying damages awarded to plaintiffs in cases related to wartime labor during Japanese colonial rule.

Yoon made the call during a TV interview after the country's Supreme Court in December and January upheld lower court decisions ordering Japanese companies to compensate South Korean plaintiffs.

"Such similar rulings would continue to come out (in ongoing cases) and I wish to see cooperation between businesspeople of the two countries who wish to improve relations between Korea and Japan (to resolve the issue)," said Yoon.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol gives a TV interview with public broadcaster KBS in Seoul on Feb. 4, 2024. (Photo courtesy of the presidential office)(Kyodo)

The recent top court decisions concerned Nippon Steel Corp., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., Hitachi Zosen Corp. and Nachi-Fujikoshi Corp.

In an effort to resolve the issue, Yoon's administration last March announced the establishment of a government-backed fund to shoulder the compensation payments, to which some South Korean companies made donations. Some plaintiffs have received money from the fund, while others have refused, insisting on the involvement of Japanese companies.

"To judge whether the rulings were right or wrong is not needed for now...What I would like to say is that ties between South Korea and Japan have already been settled regardless of the court decisions, and are now heading toward the future," Yoon added.

Bilateral ties hit a low after the top court in October and November 2018 upheld orders in separate judgments for Nippon Steel, then named Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp., and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay damages for forced labor during Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

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

Regarding heightened tensions with North Korea, Yoon said South Korea must maintain its defense capabilities at a stronger level based on the presumption that Pyongyang may take "unreasonable and irrational" actions, adding that is why trilateral security cooperation with the United States and Japan is more necessary than ever.

Yoon, who took office in May 2022, has not given a press conference or talked to reporters for about 15 months, apart from joint press conferences with foreign leaders. The interview with public broadcaster KBS was recorded three days earlier and broadcast late at night.

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