Seoul: South Korea's top court on Tuesday ordered a Japanese steel giant to pay compensation over forced wartime labour, triggering a new row between the two US allies and a denunciation by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
South Korea and Japan are both democracies faced with an increasingly assertive neighbour China and the long-running threat of nuclear-armed Pyongyang.
But their own relationship is soured by bitter disputes over history and territory stemming from Japan's brutal 1910-45 colonial rule over the peninsula, with forced labour and wartime sexual slavery key examples.
Tuesday's ruling marks the final South Korean chapter in a 21-year legal battle against Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal (NSSM).
The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the firm pay each of four plaintiffs - only one of whom is still alive - 100 million won ($88,000) for being forced to work at its steel mills between 1941 and 1943.
The sole surviving claimant, Lee Chun-sik, now in his mid-90s, attended the hearing in a wheelchair and was visibly overcome after the ruling.
"I'm just very sad that I am the only one remaining," Lee told reporters, teary-eyed and choking.
Two South Koreans initially brought the case to a Japanese court in 1997 seeking damages and unpaid wages for forced labour at steel mills owned by a predecessor company of Nippon Steel.
Japanese courts dismissed the case, saying their right to sue had been extinguished by the 1965 treaty which saw Seoul and Tokyo restore diplomatic relations and included a reparations package of about $800 million in grants and cheap loans.
But the victims - along with two others including Lee - launched a separate action in South Korea in 2005, and in 2012 the Supreme Court in Seoul ruled that the company was liable.
Tuesday's decision dismissed NSSM's final appeal over the amount of the award. No further appeal is possible in the South Korean courts.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe criticised the South Korean ruling, saying it was "impossible" under international law and that the issue had been "completely and finally settled" by the 1965 treaty.
"The Japanese government will deal firmly with this issue," Abe told lawmakers in Tokyo.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono summoned the South Korean ambassador to protest the ruling and warned Tokyo will bring the case to an international court "if appropriate measures are not taken immediately".
The ruling "could have a negative impact on the Japan-South Korea relationship", Kono said, adding he hoped Seoul would take action to avoid that.
Nippon Steel & Sumimoto Metal called the court decision "deeply regrettable".
It will "carefully review" the ruling, it added, "taking into account the Japanese government's responses on this matter and other factors".
According to official Seoul data, around 780,000 Koreans were conscripted into forced labour by Japan during the 35-year occupation, not including the women forced to work in wartime brothels.