Seoul court refuses to force Japan to compensate WWII-era ‘comfort women’ sexual slavery victims, contradicting previous ruling

A South Korean court ruled that Japan cannot be legally forced to compensate Korean ‘comfort women’ who were rounded up to work in Japanese military-run brothels during WWII.

The case revolved around ‘comfort women’ – a euphemism used to describe women and girls who were forced to work in Japanese Army-run brothels during WWII, when the whole of the Korean Peninsula was Japan’s colony.

Historians believe that up to 200,000 women were subjected to sexual slavery under this system, but only 15 surviving victims are currently registered with the South Korean government, most in their 80s and 90s, according to Yonhap News Agency.

In January, the Seoul Central District Court ruled for the first time that Tokyo must pay reparations of 100 million won ($89,400) each to a group of 12 victims. Japan protested the ruling at the time.

On Wednesday, the same court dismissed a separate case brought by 20 plaintiffs, including former comfort women and their families, acknowledging that Japan, as a sovereign nation, has immunity from overseas lawsuits.

Judge Min Seong-cheol said the court wanted to avoid a diplomatic clash with Japan, and that the issue should be resolved through diplomatic means instead.

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Yonhap cited judicial sources as saying that ruling in favor of forcing Japan to pay compensation would potentially violate international law. The news outlet cited the Seoul court as saying that doing so could violate the landmark 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which lays out the ground rules for how international agreements should operate.

The court also referred to the 2015 deal between South Korea and Japan, under which Tokyo agreed to apologize and pay 1 billion yen ($9.3 million) to the victims in exchange for Seoul recognizing that the issue is resolved “finally and irreversibly.” 

One of the plaintiffs, Lee Yong-soo, a 92-year-old survivor of wartime sexual slavery who attended Wednesday’s court hearing in a wheelchair, blasted the ruling as “absurd, nonsense.” She urged the South Korean government to take the case to the International Court of Justice.

Japan’s top government spokesperson, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, said Tokyo needs to examine the Seoul court’s latest ruling. He added that South Korea should “take appropriate measures as a state to correct its international law violation,” apparently referring to the January ruling that ordered Japan to pay the victims.

The case of ‘comfort women’ has plagued Japanese-South Korean relations for decades, sparking diplomatic rows and protests outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and other missions abroad.

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Lawyer Kim Kang-won speaks to the media at Seoul Central District Court January 8, 2021. © AFP / Ed Jones
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