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South Korean court orders 'comfort women' compensation

January 8, 2021

It's the first civilian legal case in South Korea regarding so-called "comfort women" who were forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during World War II. The unprecedented ruling is likely to spark ire in Japan.

A South Korean advocacy group holds a meeting in Seoul, South Korea
Some historians estimate as many as 200,000 women were forced into Japanese military brothels in WWIIImage: Kyodo/picture alliance

A South Korean court ordered the Japanese government on Friday to compensate 12 victims who were forced into sexual slavery during World War II, according to several media reports.

South Korean news agency Yonhap and Japanese news agency Kyodo first reported on the ruling.

The Seoul Central District Court ruled the victims and their families should receive 100 million won ($91,000; €74,000) each.

"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 hand of Japanese troops."

Lawyer Kim Kang-won after the ruling
Lawyer Kim Kang-won (c) was happy with the outcomeImage: Yonhap/picture alliance

Kim Dae-wol, from the House of Sharing which cares for victims, said reparations were not the most important issue.

"Rather, their wish is to have the Japanese government inform its citizens of the atrocities it committed," said Kim, reported news agency AFP.

What happened in the case?

The victims filed a petition for dispute settlement in August 2013, claiming they were cheated or tricked into sexual slavery. The case was referred to a court in January 2016 as Japan did not officially respond to the court's correspondence.

Only five of the 12 plaintiffs were still alive for Friday's ruling.

"Evidence, relevant materials and testimonies show that the victims suffered from extreme, unimaginable mental and physical pain due to the illegal acts by the accused. But no compensation has been made for their suffering," said the court in a verdict.

Comfort women protest in South Korea
The issue surrounding comfort women has been intense on the Korean Peninsula, with several protests demanding apologies and compensation for victimsImage: Getty Images/AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Who are the victims?

Before and during World War II, the Japanese military held Asian women, primarily Korean, in brothels that they owned. The term "comfort women" is a Japanese euphemism for the sex abuse victims.

Historians have estimated that up to 200,000 women were held in these brothels during wartime and suffered physical and sexual abuse. There are 16 surviving victims in South Korea that are registered with the government.

Korean 'comfort women' memorial angers Japan

How does this affect Japan-South Korea relations?

Japanese media reported that Japan has summoned South Korea's ambassador to the country to the Foreign Ministry on Friday to protest the court order for compensation.

Japan boycotted the proceedings and has insisted all compensations for affected women were determined through a 1965 treaty. The Japanese government has denied that it was directly responsible for abuses, insisting that the brothels were commercially operated.

The women's lawyer argued that at the time of the 1965 treaty, "the issue of comfort women was not discussed at all."

The issue surrounding comfort women affected South Korea deeply for decades and strained ties with Japan.

South Korea and Japan reached a deal in 2015 to "finally and irreversibly" resolve the issue with a formal Japanese apology and a 1 billion yen ($9.6 million, 7.9 million euros) fund for survivors. But then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the agreement was faulty and effectively nullified it.

The end of the agreement led to a bitter diplomatic dispute that affected trade and security issues between the two countries. Friday's decision is likely to further strain ties between the two countries.

The same court is expected to rule on a similar case against Japan brought forward by victims and their families next week.

kbd/rs (AFP, Reuters)