Seoul – South Korea on Saturday reacted to a court order for Japan to compensate former “comfort women” over their treatment in Japanese military brothels by vowing to seek an “amicable solution” and “make every effort to continue constructive and future-oriented cooperation” with its neighbor.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry in a statement acknowledged that a 2015 bilateral agreement on settling the comfort women issue was an official one, and thus South Korea “has a policy not to make any additional claims against Japan at the government level.”
But it said Seoul has neither the right nor the authority to prevent the victims themselves from raising concerns, adding that “the real problem cannot be solved only by agreements between the governments that do not reflect the intentions of the victims.”
The government will therefore consult with the comfort women “and endeavor to achieve an amicable solution,” the statement said.
The term “comfort women” is a euphemism for the women who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II. They were forced or coerced into sexual servitude under various circumstances, including abduction, deception and poverty.
Japan, meanwhile, should make “a genuine effort to restore the victims’ honor and dignity, and heal wounds,” it said.
Earlier, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi urged South Korea to “immediately” take action against the Seoul District Court’s Jan. 8 ruling, which became final Saturday as Tokyo did not appeal, saying it “clearly goes against international law and an agreement between the Japanese and South Korean governments.”
“It is extremely regrettable and utterly unacceptable,” Motegi said in a statement.
“Japan again strongly urges South Korea to immediately take appropriate measures to correct this state in violation of international law under its responsibility as a state,” he said.
On Jan. 8, the court awarded 12 plaintiffs 100 million won (¥9.4 million) each as demanded, saying the Japanese government committed “intentional, systematic and wide-ranging criminal acts against humanity.”
It also granted a provisional execution of the compensation order, making it possible to immediately seize Japanese government assets.
Japan has said the lawsuit should be rejected on the grounds of sovereign immunity — a principle under international law that allows a state to be shielded against the jurisdiction of foreign courts.
It also asserts the ruling goes against a bilateral agreement that settled all claims related to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and a 2015 agreement the two governments struck to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the comfort women issue.
Under the 2015 deal, the Japanese government paid ¥1 billion and the money was distributed through a foundation to former comfort women and the families of those who died.
However, the foundation was dissolved in 2019 after the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in concluded that the deal, reached under a previous government, failed to properly reflect the women’s wishes. Some 5.7 billion won (¥535 million) remains unused.
In a bid to improve bilateral ties, already at a historic low over another dispute on wartime labor, Moon told a news conference on Jan. 18 he wants to discuss a resolution to the row with Japan.
But Japanese officials have been against the idea of holding talks to find mutual ground, saying it is not Japan’s responsibility but up to the South Korean side, which it says broke the international and bilateral agreements, to come up with a resolution.
The ruling could worsen bilateral ties, which have sunk to the lowest point in decades following South Korean Supreme Court rulings in 2018 that ordered Japanese companies to compensate groups of South Koreans for forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule.
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