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Japanese companies told to pay compensation to former forced workers

South Korea’s Supreme Court said that Mitsubishi and Nippon must give compensation to Koreans forced to work for them during WW2.

What it means: Between 1910-1945 Korea (South and North Korea were then one country) was a colony of Japan. Like most colonists, Japan didn’t treat the locals very well. South Korea has repeatedly asked for compensation from both the Japanese government and private Japanese companies (i.e. ones not controlled by the government) who took advantage of colonial rule to conscript Korean workers.

Neither the Japanese government nor the Japanese companies are very happy about that. From their perspective, an agreement they made with Korea in 1965 proves they’ve paid their dues and the case is closed. In the 1965 agreement, which basically said everything between the countries was cool now, Japan agreed to give Korea $800 million (although $500 of that was loans that had to be repaid). It did not agree to pay any compensation to individuals, possibly because the South Korean government told them to give that money straight to them instead.

The whole thing is a very touchy issue, and shows how complex economic links between countries can be. Look just at the numbers, and it seems like South Korea would benefit from dropping the case and playing nice with Japan. Nippon was asked to pay compensation of $90,000. The value of all the stuff South Korea sells in Japan each year is $26 billion. And the number of Japanese tourists, millions of whom come to South Korea each year and spend their money there, goes up or down depending on how well the countries are getting along.

But are these things more valuable than giving compensation and justice to Koreans who suffered because of Japanese actions? Is it right that companies like Mitsubishi and Nippon, who make billions of dollars a year, got some of their growth from profit made by forced labour? Some people will say no, but with a history as bloodsoaked as humankind’s, letting some compensation claims through would create an unaffordable snowball effect that could wreck economies across the world. Others say that’s a price worth paying. Often, economics often comes down to value judgements.

Read our explainer on economic values.

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