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Fighting for Wartime Retribution

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Kim Kyung Suk still dreams of finding the remains of his brother, who was taken from his home in Korea by a Japanese mining firm more than half a century ago. The company forced Kim's brother to work in a mine in northern Japan, digging coal for the war effort. Kim was in Japan as well, conscripted to work in a steel mill. Just after the war, Kim heard that his brother had fallen sick. Without doctors or medicine, he died in late 1945. The mining company, part of the Mitsui conglomerate, didn't return the body or even inform the family of what had happened. Years later, as Kim's mother lay dying, she begged him: Please find his bones. Despite years of trying, Kim never found his brother's remains. But he didn't come up empty-handed. Now 73, Kim has repatriated the bones of 513 other Koreans who died while toiling as slave laborers in wartime Japan. He also sued NKK, the giant steelmaker he had been forced to work for, winning a partial settlement after a long court battle that ended last year. The search depleted his funds, and Kim today is broke and dying of throat cancer. But he is set to embark on one final quest to quiet the ghosts of his past. Kim plans to fly soon to Los Angeles as the representative of a group of more than 140 Koreans who want to join a class-action lawsuit against Japanese companies accused of using slave labor more than five decades ago. What I want is not revenge but a proper apology and fair compensation, he says. I have high hopes for the American courts.

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So do countless other Asian victims of Imperial Japan's wartime abuses. American prisoners-of-war have already filed about a dozen lawsuits against Mitsui, Mitsubishi and other firms, taking advantage of a new California law designed to facilitate compensation claims. Now Koreans, Chinese and other Asians who had been conscripted for labor are lining up for their day in court. Koreans have filed three suits already and more are in the pipeline. U.S. lawyers are scouring Asia looking for clients. Says Eddie Yoon, one of Kim's lawyers: The floodgate is open.

It had been shut for a long time. For decades, Asians forced to work for Japan suffered mostly in silence. Traumatized physically and emotionally, many focused on simple survival. Authoritarian governments and cold war realpolitik blunted calls for compensation. So did massive Japanese aid to the region. As the cold war wound down and countries like South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines opened up, many victims decided it was time to exhume the past. But winning retribution has proven difficult. Tokyo has been unsympathetic, arguing that postwar treaties closed the book on compensation claims. Lawsuits brought in Japanese courts mostly went nowhere: judges said the wrongs occurred too long ago.

Kim won a rare victory against NKK. The steelmaker agreed to pay him about $34,000 in a court-mediated settlement, the only time a Japanese company has paid anything to a surviving slave laborer. Kim says that hardly compensates him for what he endured. Suspected of instigating a strike at the mill in 1943, Kim says he was seized, hung upside down and beaten with bamboo swords. Though his right shoulder blade was broken and his shoulder dislocated, he says he received no treatment for six months. His victory did nothing for the estimated thousands of other Koreans conscripted by NKK, however, since Japanese law doesn't allow class-action suits.

In California, plaintiffs have better opportunities. In some instances, provisions in American law allow foreigners to sue if the defendant has a presence in the U.S., as these Japanese companies do. And the new state law essentially lifts the statute of limitations on these cases. What's more, U.S. lawyers who have recently won billion-dollar settlements from German companies and Swiss banks are adding their muscle to the fight. At conferences on war crimes in Japan last month, they could be seen chatting with former conscriptees from China and huddling in informal strategy sessions with Japanese activists and lawyers. Experience gleaned from legal battles in Europe--which involved combing through dusty archives of financial records and other legal sleuthing--gives them a head start in Asia. There are many parallels, says Barry Fisher, a Los Angeles lawyer active in the German and Swiss cases. We know where to look for things.

Corporate Japan is only slowly waking up to the legal threat. According to a complaint filed by Yoon's legal team, Japanese industry was actively involved in the forced recruitment of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Koreans. So far, the targets are mainly big industrial and mining concerns, who imported Asian muscle to replace the Japanese sent to the battlefront. And Fisher and other lawyers are also probing the role of banks and shipping companies in facilitating the practice. Most of the companies deny any responsibility or decline to comment. Much legal wrangling lies ahead, and corporate Japan's legal bills are already piling up.

Kim doesn't know if he will live long enough to see the endgame. His lawyers are going through the testimony of members of his group, looking to expand a growing list of Koreans suing Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The number of defendants will likely grow, too. Kim knows that a victory in the U.S. courts can't change the past, and it won't bring back his brother's remains. But he hopes it will help bring a sense of closure to those still alive.