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Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008

STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS 'CAN'T BE ACCEPTED'

Top court sides with Korean hibakusha


Staff writer

Sweeping aside a high court ruling backing the city of Nagasaki's refusal to pay medical benefits to a South Korean A-bomb survivor, the Supreme Court on Monday granted the relatives of the deceased hibakusha ¥827,900.

The court rejected Nagasaki's claim that Choi Gye Chol, who died in 2004 at age 78, was not entitled to benefits because the statute of limitations had run out.

Choi had demanded the municipal government pay a combined ¥9.6 million, mainly for unpaid health-care benefits. His family pursued the legal battle after his death.

Although the Nagasaki District Court in December 2005 awarded ¥827,900 to Choi, the Fukuoka High Court in January 2007 revoked the ruling on grounds his rights to the benefits had expired under the statute of limitations.

In overturning the high court ruling, the Supreme Court's first petty bench, with Justice Tokuji Izumi presiding, judged that applying the statute of limitations to the case "runs counter to the principles of faith and trust, and cannot be accepted."

In a unanimous decision, the top court determined that Choi was entitled to receive the benefits for three years from 1980 to 1983, declaring the lower court verdict "clearly in breach of the law."

Choi was exposed to radiation while living in Nagasaki in August 1945 when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on the city. Korea was under Japan's colonial rule between 1910 and 1945.

He settled in South Korea after the war but returned to Nagasaki in 1980 to register as an A-bomb victim and receive hibakusha benefits under the Atomic Bomb Victims Relief Law.

But based on a 1974 directive by the health ministry that benefits should be paid only to those residing in Japan, Nagasaki halted its payments to Choi after his return to South Korea later that year.

The health ministry retracted the 1974 directive in 2003, following an Osaka High Court ruling in a separate case that found that overseas victims were entitled to medical allowances from the government.

However, Nagasaki informed Choi that he would not receive payments due to the statute of limitations, prompting him to file suit with the Nagasaki District Court in 2004.

His ¥9.6 million demand covered the benefits that he missed in the years since 1980 as well as compensation.

The focus of the suit was on whether the statute of limitations could be applied for retroactive payments of benefits to overseas survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings.

The top court on Monday determined that it could not accept Nagasaki's arguments that the time limit for Choi's family to seek the payment had expired, noting that he was living overseas and could not exercise his rights against the municipal government.

Choi's daughter, Choi Mi Suk, who was in the gallery when the court handed down the decision, thanked her supporters outside the Supreme Court after the ruling.

"I wish we had won the trial while my father was still alive. But I want to thank everyone who supported us," she said through an interpreter.

Similar lawsuits by overseas hibakusha have received favorable decisions by the top court, including a ruling in February 2007 that ordered the Hiroshima Prefectural Government to pay medical benefits to three Japanese A-bomb survivors living in Brazil.

In November the Supreme Court granted a total of ¥48 million in damages to 40 South Korean hibakusha, declaring that the government's refusal to provide public financial assistance was illegal.

Approximately 5,000 A-bomb survivors reside outside Japan in South Korea, the U.S. and Brazil, among other countries, according to the health ministry.



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