Seoul – A South Korean court ordered the Japanese government on Friday to pay damages to a group of former "comfort women" who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II, over their treatment during the war, marking the first such court ruling in South Korea.
The ruling is certain to further fray the already strained ties between the two countries over wartime labor compensation and other issues.
Japan's Foreign Ministry immediately lodged a protest over the decision.
Takeo Akiba, the ministry's top bureaucrat, summoned South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo to the ministry and told him the ruling is "extremely regrettable" and "utterly unacceptable," according to the Japanese government.
Japan will not appeal the ruling, as doing so would put the country under South Korea's jurisdiction, top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said during a news conference.
In awarding the 12 plaintiffs 100 million won (¥9.5 million) each as demanded, the Seoul Central District Court also granted a provisional execution of the compensation order. That makes it possible to seize Japanese government assets immediately.
The court said sovereign immunity — the concept under international law that the state is immune from the jurisdiction of the court of a foreign country — cannot be applied to the case.
The Japanese government has taken the position that the lawsuit should be dismissed on that ground. It also declined to be involved in the suit and representatives did not attend court proceedings related to the case.
In rejecting the application of sovereign immunity to the case, the court said it can be judged that the government "violated international norms by committing intentional, systematic and wide-ranging inhumane criminal acts."
A South Korean group supporting former comfort women hailed the ruling as "monumental." A lawyer for the plaintiffs told reporters that it was natural to award damages.
The lawyer, Kim Gang-won, said he intends to consult with officials at the group home where some of the plaintiffs live about whether to proceed with taking forcible measures such as the seizure of Japanese government assets.
In the suit, the plaintiffs claimed that their mobilization and the manner in which they were treated as comfort women amounted to an "inhumane criminal act," and demanded the court not adopt sovereign immunity for their case.
The plaintiffs consist of both the living and the deceased, including Lee Ok-son, who is in her 90s and lives with other women at the House of Sharing, a group home on the outskirts of Seoul for Korean women who worked in wartime brothels.
In August 2013, the women filed for court mediation seeking 100 million won each in damages from the Japanese government. But after Japan refused to accept the mediation, the case proceeded to a formal trial.
With Japan refusing to accept relevant documents, the court considered papers served through a process known as public notification, and proceeded with the case.
A ruling on a similar case is scheduled at the Seoul court on Wednesday. In that suit, 20 plaintiffs including the bereaved families of some former comfort women are seeking a total of 3 billion won from the Japanese government.
The issue of comfort women has long been a source of tension between Japan and South Korea, and the two countries struck a deal in December 2015 to "finally and irreversibly" resolve the dispute.
Using the ¥1 billion provided by the Japanese government as part of the deal, cash was distributed to former comfort women and the families of those who had died. But some women refused to accept it, calling instead for an official apology and compensation from Japan.
Japan and South Korea have also been locked in a dispute stemming from 2018 South Korean Supreme Court rulings that ordered Japanese companies to compensate South Koreans for forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
The dispute could worsen bilateral ties, which are already at a historic low, with court proceedings under way in South Korea to possibly liquidate Japanese firms' assets to compensate the plaintiffs.
Japan says all claims related to its colonial rule were settled by a 1965 bilateral agreement under which it provided financial aid to Seoul on the understanding that the issue of compensation was resolved "completely and finally."
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