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South Korean 'comfort women' lose compensation claim

April 21, 2021

A South Korean court rejected a lawsuit calling for Japan to compensate victims forced to work in wartime brothels. Activists and plaintiffs denounced the decision, calling it a "major disappointment."

A statue of a girl symbolizing "comfort women" in Seoul, South Korea
A statue of a girl symbolizing "comfort women" in Seoul, South KoreaImage: Getty Images/C. Sung-Jun

A South Korean court on Wednesday rejected a claim by sexual slavery victims and their relatives, who sought compensation from the Japanese government over wartime sufferings.

The court upheld Japan's state immunity in the dismissal of the case, which ordered Tokyo to compensate the victims, known as "comfort women," who were forced to work in Japanese wartime brothels.

Remnants of Japan's 1910 to 1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula remain contentious for both sides, with many surviving women demanding a formal apology and financial compensation.

Activists representing the victims denounced the decision, saying that the Seoul Central District Court was ignoring their struggles to restore the women's honor and dignity. They also said in a statement that the plaintiffs would appeal the decision.

Ruling conflicts with earlier decision

Japan had boycotted the court proceedings, insisting that all wartime compensation issues were settled under a 1965 treaty normalizing relations with South Korea. Diplomatic tensions, however, flared in January when another judge at the same court ruled in favor of other women in a separate case, ordering Japan to pay compensation for the first time.

The court ruled that Japan should be exempt from civil jurisdiction under the principles of international law.

"If an exception on state immunity is acknowledged, a diplomatic clash would be inevitable during the process of forcing the ruling's implementation," said Judge Min Seong-cheol.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said the latest verdict was "different" from the earlier ruling, but declined to elaborate.

"That January ruling was clearly against both international law and bilateral agreements, and as such was extremely regrettable and unacceptable," he said. "Japan continues to strongly ask South Korea to take appropriate steps in order to correct the state of international violation."

The 20 plaintiffs, who had sued the Japanese government in 2016, included 11 women who were forced to work at Japanese military brothels during World War II, along with relatives of other women who have since died.

An 'absurd' result

Lee Yong-soo, 92, a victim and one of the plaintiffs, called the ruling "absurd, nonsense," saying she would seek international litigation over the case.

About 240 South Korean women have registered with the government as victims of sexual slavery by Japan's wartime military, only 15 of whom are still alive. Tens of thousands of women were moved to the frontline brothels during the war.

Korean 'comfort women' memorial angers Japan

Amnesty International called Wednesday's ruling a "major disappointment that fails to deliver justice to the remaining survivors of this military slavery system and to those who suffered these atrocities before and during World War II but had already passed away, as well as their families.''

Under a 2015 agreement, Tokyo issued an official apology and provided 1 billion yen (€7.7 million or $9.3 million) to a fund to help comfort women victims, with both sides promising to "irreversibly" end the dispute. But some victims, including Lee, rejected the settlement, saying that the government did not sufficiently consult them during the negotiations.

lc/sms (AP, Reuters)