Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Shutterstock

Prosecutors in South Korea raided the offices of Kim & Chang, the nation’s largest law firm, last month amid allegations that the firm meddled in trials against its clients—Japanese companies accused of using forced labor of Koreans during the period of Japanese colonial rule.

Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 until Japan’s 1945 surrender in World War II.

According to local media reports, prosecutors said they searched offices of two Kim & Chang lawyers—Kwak Byung-hun and another surnamed Han—on Nov. 12. Kwak joined Kim & Chang in 2011 after 15 years as a judge. He briefly left the firm in 2015 to serve as presidential secretary for legal affairs under the impeached and ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and returned to the firm in 2016. Park’s corruption scandal started in late 2016, which eventually led to her impeachment in December 2016 and arrest in March 2017.

The lawyer surnamed Han joined Kim & Chang in 1998 and led the firm’s litigation team, local media reports said. The firm’s current litigation chair is Han Sang-ho, who joined the firm in 1998.

The raid of the country’s largest firm stems from allegations that the firm colluded with the top court and others to delay trials related to the forced labor of Koreans by Japanese companies during the period of Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945. The Park administration had wanted to delay the trials, which it saw as damaging to Korea-Japan relations.

Prosecutors alleged they had evidence supporting allegations that the two lawyers had colluded with the Supreme Court of Korea’s National Court Administration, the Park administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to delay the trials. Kim & Chang represented the Japanese companies involved in the suit.

The delayed forced labor rulings resumed in October of this year. Kim & Chang is defending the Japanese companies, which include Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.

On Oct. 30, in a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court of Korea ordered Nippon Steel to pay 100 million Korean won ($90,000) to each of four Koreans as compensation for their forced labor during between 1941 and 1943. Last week, the top court also ordered Mitsubishi to pay each of five women between 100 million won ($90,000) and 150 million won ($135,000) as compensation, and to pay 80 million won ($72,000) to each of six men who had said they were subject to forced labor at a Mitsubishi shipyard and machine tool factory in 1944.

The verdict could open the door for other victims and their relatives to file lawsuits against  Japanese companies accused of using forced labor during the colonial era.

Kim & Chang did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the prosecutors’ raid or about its lawyers’ alleged involvement in meddling with the forced labor cases.

The firm previously faced nationwide criticism in 2016 for its role in a toxic sterilizer scandal by client Oxy Reckitt Benckiser, a South Korean subsidiary of British consumer goods company Reckitt Benckiser. The disinfectant led to the death of more than 100 people, including infants, and was responsible for hundreds more suffering permanent lung damage.

In 2016, prosecutors alleged that they had found emails written by a Kim & Chang lawyer demanding that a scientist conduct toxicity tests under conditions that would be favorable to its client and enable it to refute government test results showing Oxy’s product posed serious health hazards. Prosecutors also alleged that Kim & Chang used fabricated test results for out-of-court settlement negotiations with individual victims. Kim & Chang was not charged.

Kim & Chang reported $870 million in revenue last year, making it the 51st largest law firm in the world by revenue.

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