SEOUL – A South Korean court on Friday ordered Japan to compensate 12 women who were forced to work in its war brothels. This decision was heavily rebuked by Tokyo and threatened to restart a diplomatic feud between the two countries.
Memories of Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula are controversial for both sides. Many surviving “comfort women” – a Japanese euphemism for victims of sexual abuse – are calling for Tokyo’s formal apology and compensation.
According to Japan, the problem was settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized diplomatic relations, and the two countries agreed to “irreversibly” end the dispute in a 2015 agreement.
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However, the Seoul Central District Court, a lower tier court, ordered Japan to pay each of the women 100 million won ($ 91,000). None of the pacts could cover their right to compensation.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Japan could not accept the court ruling and said the lawsuit should be dropped.
Cabinet chief Katsunobu Kato called the verdict “unacceptable” and urged Seoul to take “appropriate measures”. The Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba called on the South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo to make an “extremely strong protest”.
Ambassador Nam said he would do his best to prevent the ruling from having “undesirable effects” on relationships.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it respected the court ruling, but admits that the 2015 pact was a formal agreement. It will also make efforts to ensure that the two countries continue to work constructively together as it reviews the ruling’s impact on diplomatic relations, the ministry said in a statement.
“I emphasized that the most important thing for both sides to be calm and cautious in order to resolve the problem,” Nam told reporters after being called in.
“Not for money”
After taking office in 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in overturned the 2015 settlement in which Japan issued an official apology and donated 1 billion yen ($ 9.6 million) to a fund to comfort victims .
Some historians estimate that up to 200,000 Korean girls and women were forced to offer sex to Japanese troops during colonial times, sometimes on the pretext of employment or to pay off a relative’s debt.
“It was a crime against humanity that was systematically, deliberately and comprehensively committed by Japan in violation of international norms,” Justice Kim Jeong-gon said in the verdict.
“Even if it was a sovereign act of a country, state immunity cannot be applied because it was committed against our citizens on the Korean peninsula, which was illegally occupied by Japan.”
Only 16 registered Korean survivors are still alive, and six of the 12 victims have died since they started the lawsuit in 2016.
Women’s lawyer Kim Kang-won said he was “deeply moved” when the verdict recognized the Japanese government was responsible for the atrocities.
Kim Dae-wol of the House of Sharing, a women’s shelter, said two out of five plaintiffs who live there are healthy enough to monitor the process remotely and welcomed the verdict.
“They said it was never enough even if Japan pays ten times more, but they don’t care much about compensation,” he told reporters. “They just want Japan to apologize and inform more of its people so that such war crimes no longer exist.”
South Korea and Japan, both strong US allies, are important trading partners and share other common interests, including countering North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats.
Relations have deteriorated, however, as historical disputes flared up in recent years that affected trade and security arrangements, particularly after the South Korean Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies to compensate some wartime slave laborers.
The former workers have tried to confiscate and sell some assets of Japanese companies in South Korea as compensation in what Tokyo warned as a “grave situation”.
Kim, the comfort women attorney, said he would look for ways to enforce the court order.