A South Korean court on Friday has ordered the Japanese government to pay damages to 12 victims of war-time sexual slavery, a ruling that will likely rekindle a diplomatic feud between the two countries.
Seoul’s Central District Court ruled that Japan should pay each of the World War II sex slaves or their families100 million won (US$91,000), South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
The court said in its verdict that Imperial Japan was responsible for the “comfort women” system, a euphemism used to describe sex slaves for Japanese troops.
It is the first civilian legal case in South Korea against Tokyo and the first time a domestic court had recognised that Japan’s government was accountable for the wartime atrocities.
The ruling comes despite a 1965 treaty between Seoul and Tokyo which declared claims between them and their nationals had been settled.
The court said in its verdict that “the plaintiffs, who were in their late teens or early 20s, were subjected to repeated sexual exploitation”.
“It amounted to an illegal act against humanity and the defendant has an obligation to compensate the victims for their mental suffering.”
Tokyo denounced Friday’s ruling as a violation of international law and summoned Seoul’s ambassador to protest, demanding that the South Korean government intervene.
“It is extremely regrettable that the Seoul Central District Court denied the principle of sovereign immunity,” Japan’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
“This is unacceptable to the Japanese government.”
Mainstream historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also other parts of Asia including China, were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II.
Friday’s ruling came in a legal process that began eight years ago and only five of the original plaintiffs are still alive, the others replaced by family members.
Tokyo boycotted the proceedings and insists all compensation issues stemming from its colonial rule were settled in a 1965 treaty and linked agreement normalising diplomatic relations between the neighbours.
Under them, Japan paid South Korea financial reparations – which Seoul used to contribute to its transformation into an economic powerhouse – and the document said that claims between the states and their nationals had been “settled completely and finally”.
But the court ruled that the pact did not terminate the women’s right to seek compensation from Tokyo, which it said bore liability for their suffering decades ago.
“I am deeply moved by today’s ruling,” said Kim Kang-won, the women’s lawyer. “It is the first such verdict for victims who suffered at the hands of Japanese troops.”
Speaking to reporters after the verdict, he insisted that at the time of the 1965 treaty, “the issue of comfort women was not discussed at all”.
The Japanese government denies it is directly responsible for the wartime abuses, maintaining that the victims were recruited by civilians and that the military brothels were commercially operated.
The same court is due to rule next week on a similar case brought against Tokyo by another 20 women and their families. (Source: CNA)