SEOUL (SOUTH KOREA) – In a ruling that drew strong criticism from Tokyo, a South Korean court on Friday ordered Japan to compensate 12 women who were forced to work in its wartime brothels. The ruling has threatened to rekindle a diplomatic feud between the two countries.
‘Comfort Women’ is a Japanese euphemism for sex abuse victims. Reminders of Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula are contentious for both sides, with many surviving ‘comfort women’ demanding Tokyo’s formal apology and compensation.
While Japan says the issue was settled under a 1965 treaty that normalised diplomatic ties, and the two countries agreed to “irreversibly” end the dispute in a 2015 deal, the Seoul Central District Court said neither of the pacts can cover their right to seek compensation. The court has ordered Japan pay each of the women 100 million won ($91,000).
“It was a crime against humanity that was systematically, deliberately and extensively committed by Japan in breach of international norms,” Justice Kim Jeong-gon said in the ruling.
“Even if it was a country’s sovereign act, state immunity cannot be applied as it was committed against our citizens on the Korean peninsula that was illegally occupied by Japan.”
Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba summoned South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo to lodge an “extremely strong protest”. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato called the verdict “unacceptable,” urging Seoul to take “appropriate measures”.
Ambassador Nam said in Tokyo that he would strive to prevent the ruling from having an “undesirable impact” on ties. “I emphasised that it was most important for both sides to respond in a calm, restrained manner in order to resolve the issue,” Nam told reporters after being called in.
Some historians estimate up to 200,000 Korean girls and women were forced to provide sex to Japanese troops during the colonial era, sometimes under the pretext of employment or to pay off a relative’s debt.
A 2015 settlement was taken down by Korean President Moon Jae-in afetr her took office in 2017. According to the settlement Japan issued an official apology and provided 1 billion yen ($9.6 million) to a fund to help comfort women victims.
Only 16 registered Korean survivors are still alive, and six of the 12 victims have died since they initiated the lawsuit in 2016.
The women’s lawyer, Kim Kang-won, said he was “deeply moved” as the ruling acknowledged the Japanese government was accountable for the atrocity.
Kim Dae-wol at the House of Sharing, a shelter for the women, said two of five plaintiffs who live there were healthy enough to remotely monitor the trial and they welcomed the ruling.
“They said it’s never enough even if Japan pays tens of times more, but they don’t put much meaning on compensation,” he told reporters. “They just want Japan to apologise and let more of its people know, so that there will no longer be such war crimes.”