SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea's highest court on Friday upheld a ruling ordering two US Agent Orange makers to compensate 39 Vietnam War veterans in one of the country's most prominent lawsuits.
The Supreme Court recognised the epidemiological correlation between the toxic defoliant and skin diseases for the first time, saying the 39 victims should receive a total of 466 million won (S$523,000) from Dow Chemical and Monsanto.
The veterans had complained that Agent Orange was responsible for their severe skin diseases.
Payment is now up to the US firms, but Dow Chemical said in a statement quoted by Yonhap news agency that it disagrees with the Supreme Court's decision as the verdict was not backed by clear evidence, citing US court rulings.
The South Korean court also reversed an appeals court verdict that the two firms should compensate thousands of other veterans who claimed to have similarly suffered from exposure to defoliants used during the Vietnam War.
More than 16,000 veterans filed separate lawsuits in 1999 against the US firms, seeking about five trillion won in damages, but a district court ruled against them.
In 2006, an appeals court ordered the US firms to pay a total of 63 billion won in compensation to 6,795 veterans and their families.
But the Supreme Court, in its ruling on Friday, sent the case back to the appeals court for review.
"There is no evidence their diseases were caused by their exposure to the defoliant sprayed during the Vietnam War," it said in a statement.
South Korea sent some 300,000 troops to fight alongside the United States and southern Vietnamese forces during the war.
US forces widely sprayed Agent Orange, which contained the lethal chemical dioxin, in Vietnam during the conflict to deprive enemy guerrillas of forest cover and destroy food crops.
Veterans in South Korea estimate the number of Korean victims of the chemicals at about 150,000. Many insisted they were suffering from various ailments associated with exposure to the powerful herbicide.
Vietnam says millions of its people have died or suffered from direct or second-generation disabilities as a result of the use of Agent Orange.
Washington has never accepted responsibility for the Vietnamese government's claim.