South Korean flags at the International Horticulture Goyang Korea exhibition. Picture: BLOOMBERG/SEONG-JOON CHO
South Korean flags at the International Horticulture Goyang Korea exhibition. Picture: BLOOMBERG/SEONG-JOON CHO

Seoul — A South Korean court has ordered Japan to compensate women forced to work in Japan’s military brothels during World War 2, a landmark decision that inflamed tensions between the US allies just before Joe Biden takes office.

The Seoul district court on Friday made what is thought to be first decision ordering Japan to compensate what are euphemistically known as “comfort women”, in a case brought on behalf of 12 of the woman. It ordered the Japanese government to pay 100-million won ($91,000) each to surviving women and family members of those who died.

“The plaintiffs seem to have suffered extreme mental and physical pain,” the court said in its decision. The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government in 2013, demanding 100-million won each for compensation.

The court said Japan has refused to accept documents related to the matter and it rejected claims that Tokyo can invoke state immunity to the lawsuit, saying the wartime trafficking case is “against humanitarianism”.

Japan’s top government spokesperson, Katsunobu Kato, told reporters in Tokyo the ruling cannot be accepted and strongly urged the South Korean government to remedy what he called a violation of international law.

“Under the principle of sovereign immunity the Japanese government cannot be subject to the orders of a South Korean court. The case must be dismissed,” Kato said. “It is extremely regrettable that this kind of verdict has nonetheless been reached,” Kato said.

In 2015, Japan and South Korea announced a “final and irreversible” agreement that came with a personal apology to the women from former Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo  as well as about $9.3-million for a compensation fund.

Some of the women protested, arguing the deal was made without consultations and violated their constitutional rights. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office in 2017, has effectively shut down the fund, widening the rift between the two US military allies, which are crucial to check China’s growing global clout and North Korea’s atomic ambitions.

In September, Moon was dealt a blow when prosecutors brought embezzlement charges against a legislator in his ruling party, Yoon Mee-hyang, alleging she illegally diverted donations and government subsidies to a support group for the trafficked women when she was leading it.

Yoon has denied the charges. The case came to light last year when a survivor of the wartime trafficking accused the group of raising funds to enrich itself and doing little to help women who were forced into sexual servitude.

Tensions further flared between the neighbours after a series of South Korean court decisions from late 2018 demanding Japan pay compensation to Koreans conscripted to work at Japanese factories and mines during the country’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

The US was forced to step in when South Korea threatened in 2019 to withdraw from a joint intelligence-sharing agreement, with Moon backing down at the last minute after facing pressure from Washington.

Japan says all claims were “settled completely and finally” under a 1965 agreement, which accompanied the treaty establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries. By contrast, the Moon administration believes the individual suffering of many victims was not covered by the treaty.

Japan paid the equivalent of $300m — $2.5bn in today’s money — and extended $200m in low-interest loans. The then struggling South Korea invested the money in industries that eventually helped turn it into an economic powerhouse.

Historians say that between 50,000 and 200,000 women — many of them Korean — were forced into service in Japan’s military brothels.



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