SEOUL – A judge in South Korea ruled on Wednesday that Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II cannot seek compensation from the Japanese government in a South Korean court, a ruling which angered survivors and contradicted an earlier ruling in January. .
In the previous verdict, the presiding judge ordered the Japanese government to pay 100 million won ($ 89,400) each to 12 former Korean sex slaves, known as “comfort women.”
The two different rulings by two different Seoul Central District Court judges have complicated efforts by survivors for decades to hold the Japanese government legally responsible for wartime sexual slavery. The two rulings also showed South Korean courts to be divided over Japan’s claim that international law protects it from prosecution in foreign courts.
In January, the South Korean judge ruled that the Japanese government should be subject to Korean jurisdiction because the experience of Korean sex slaves involved “anti-humanist acts systematically planned and perpetrated by the Japanese Empire.” For such acts, Japan cannot claim an exemption from a trial in South Korea on the basis of state sovereignty, he said.
The women’s group in this case hailed the judge’s ruling as a historic victory, but Tokyo rejected the ruling. He also said that a 2015 Agreement, which South Korea and Japan called “final and irreversible,” finally settled the long-standing Comfort Women dispute. Previously in a declaration from 1993, Japan has issued a formal apology for this practice.
Another South Korean judge, Min Seong-cheol, sided with Japan on Wednesday and dismissed the lawsuit brought by a separate group of former sex slaves. If the courts start to make exceptions to the principle of national sovereignty, “diplomatic clashes become inevitable,” the judge said in his ruling. Mr. Min also cited the 2015 Agreement, under which Japan has acknowledged responsibility for its actions, apologized again to women and established an $ 8.3 million fund to help provide elderly care to survivors.
Some of the surviving women accepted payments from the 2015 fund. Others rejected the deal, saying it did not specify Japan’s “legal” responsibility or grant official reparations. The rejected lawsuit on Wednesday was filed in 2016 by 20 plaintiffs, including 11 former sex slaves. Only four of the 11 are still alive, and all are 80 or 90 years old.
Neither the decision of January nor that of Wednesday is the last word on the matter. Plaintiffs in the second trial said they would seek advice from higher courts when appealing Wednesday’s ruling.
“This will go down in history as a shameful case where the judge shirked his duty as the last bastion of human rights,” said a human rights group in Seoul that speaks on behalf of women who have taken legal action. Lee Yong-soo, a former sex slave who joined the trial, accused the judge of denying victims “the right to seek judgment on war crimes and anti-humanity crimes,” according to a statement from her. spokesperson. Ms Lee also demanded that the two governments ask the International Court of Justice to rule on the case.
“Comfort Women” is the euphemism adopted by Japan for the approximately 200,000 young women – mostly Korean – who were forced or attracted to work in brothels run by the Japanese military before and during World War II. . Over the past 30 years, survivors from South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, China and the Netherlands have brought a total of 10 lawsuits against the Japanese government in Japanese courts, according to Amnesty International.
Survivors lost in all of these cases before winning their case in South Korean court in January.
“What was a historic victory for survivors after too long a wait is once again called into question,” said Arnold Fang, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International, criticizing Wednesday’s court ruling. . “More than 70 years have passed since the end of World War II, and we cannot overestimate the urgency for the Japanese government to stop depriving these survivors of their rights to full reparation and to provide an effective remedy during of their life.”
In Tokyo, Katsunobu Kato, chief secretary of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet, said the Japanese government plans to review the decision in detail before commenting on it. He added that his government could not say whether the new decision reflected a change in South Korea’s stance on the issue, but that “Japan’s attitude is not changing at all.”
Washington urged Seoul and Tokyo to improve relations so that allies can work more closely to deal with North Korea’s nuclear threat and China’s growing military influence in the region. For years, Japan and South Korea have dealt with Comfort Women and other historical issues arising from Japanese colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945.
Tokyo insisted that all claims arising from its colonial rule, including those involving sexually enslaved women, had been settled by the 1965 treaty that established diplomatic relations between the two nations, as well as by the 2015 agreement on women of comfort. Under the 1965 agreement, Japan provided South Korea with $ 500 million in aid and affordable loans.
The South Korean government did not immediately comment on Wednesday’s court ruling. But at a forum in Seoul on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said that while his government has not abandoned the 2015 agreement, the victims and their demands must be “at the center” of the deal. any effort to resolve the problem.
Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo.