SEOUL – South Korea’s Constitutional Court declined Friday to rule on the validity of a 2015 diplomatic agreement with Japan that aimed to provide funds to the Korean “comfort women” but was deeply unpopular with the Korean public and may have fallen short of being an official treaty.
The court said the bilateral agreement is a “political deal” and its legal power is unclear. Thus, the legal rights of the plaintiffs have not been infringed, the court said, adding that it does not need to judge whether, by concluding the deal with Japan, the South Korean government had violated the Constitution.
The court acknowledged, however, that the “pain” the former comfort women suffered as a result of the deal was “not at all light,” given that the government failed to sufficiently solicit their opinions while negotiating it with the Japanese government.
Under the agreement, the two countries were to “finally and irreversibly” settle the long-running bilateral feud, with Japan issuing an apology to former comfort women for their suffering and providing ¥1 billion ($9.1 million) to a foundation meant to help the victims.
After extensive negotiations, an agreement was reached between the previous administration of President Park Geun-hye and the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“Comfort women” is Japan’s euphemism for the women who provided sex, including those who did so against their will, for Imperial Japan’s troops before and during World War II.
A group of plaintiffs consisting of former comfort women and their family members filed a lawsuit in March 2016 asking the court to strike down the agreement as unconstitutional.
The plaintiffs argued that the deal had closed the door on their bid to seek reparations from Japan on the issue, thus violating their property rights and their right to receive diplomatic protection from the state.
On Friday, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ lawsuit.
The administration of President Moon Jae-in, which came to power after the 2015 deal, has criticized the bilateral agreement, saying it cannot settle the issue because it did not reflect the opinions of surviving victims.
After the court dismissed the lawsuit, some of the plaintiffs expressed disappointment.
“It could have been a chance to heal the victims who have been suffering from this for so many years,” Lee Dong-joon, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told reporters.
At the same time, Friday’s decision did acknowledge that the 2015 deal fell short of being an official treaty, giving the plaintiffs more grounds to seek its nullification or renegotiation, Lee added.