• Kyodo, staff report

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A South Korean court on Wednesday dismissed a damages lawsuit brought by a group of former “comfort women” against the Japanese government over their treatment in Japanese military brothels during World War II.

The Seoul Central District Court decision follows a ruling on Jan. 8 by the same court that ordered the government to compensate 12 women, including those who died since filing the suit. Wednesday’s decision was given out by a different panel of judges.

Another ruling in favor of former comfort women would have dealt a further blow to Japan-South Korea ties, which have already sunk to the lowest level in decades after a series of South Korean Supreme Court rulings in late 2018 that ordered Japanese firms to provide compensation for wartime forced labor.

“Comfort women” is a euphemism for those 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.

In dismissing the suit, the court in Wednesday’s ruling applied sovereign immunity to the case — a concept under international law that says a state is immune from the jurisdiction of a court in a foreign country.

Saying there is “no change in customary international law” on the application of sovereign immunity to illegal acts, the court stressed that making an exception in this case would cause great uncertainty.

The January ruling had dismissed the application of the principle, saying that the Japanese government committed “intentional, systematic and wide-ranging criminal acts against humanity” by making the plaintiffs work at military brothels.

Wednesday’s ruling also noted that some of the plaintiffs in the second case had received money from a foundation set up in South Korea with Japanese contributions following a December 2015 deal between the two countries.

The court said the deal, which was struck to resolve the dispute over the comfort women issue, can be seen as a remedial measure and is still effective.

“Though the agreement was just a political one, it was not struck between individuals but nations. We cannot deny the fact that a remedial measure was prepared for the victims, including the ones involved in this case,” the court said.

The court also urged the South Korean government to make efforts “internally and externally” to resolve the comfort women issue, including diplomatic negotiations with Japan.

The Japanese government declined to be involved in both cases and criticized the January ruling as violating international law. The ruling, which ordered the Japanese government to pay the 12 plaintiffs 100 million won (¥9.5 million) each, has since been finalized.

Lee Yong-soo, a former comfort woman and one of 20 plaintiffs in the latest case, rejected Wednesday’s ruling, saying, “Nonsense.” The 92-year-old told reporters that she would take the case to the International Court of Justice.

Lee Sang-hee, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called the ruling “absolutely hard to accept,” adding that any appeal would depend on consultations with them. If the ruling is appealed, a higher court would examine whether sovereign immunity should be applied.

Supporters of former
Supporters of former “comfort women” stage a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on April 12. | KYODO

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, declined to comment directly on the latest ruling, citing the need to look into it thoroughly, but said Japan’s stance on the issue remains the same.

“We will continue to strongly demand that South Korea take appropriate measures as a state to correct its international law violation,” Kato said.

South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said after the ruling that his country has always sought realistic solutions that would satisfy the women, including through the December 2015 deal.

The second lawsuit was brought by 20 plaintiffs, including the bereaved families of some former comfort women who have died, in December 2016. They sought a total of 3 billion won from the Japanese government.

The Seoul court was originally scheduled to rule on the case on Jan. 13, but postponed it after the Jan. 8 ruling, on the grounds that a few points raised by plaintiffs’ lawyers needed further review, in addition to a change in judges that made up the panel.

Japan has taken the position that all claims related to its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula were settled “completely and finally” under a 1965 bilateral agreement under which it provided financial aid to Seoul.

With no sign that Tokyo would ever agree to compensate the plaintiffs in the first case, they filed a request with the Seoul court last week to compel disclosure of a list of assets owned by the Japanese government in South Korea.

But assets such as the Japanese Embassy in Seoul are thought to be difficult to seize because they are protected under a provision in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations that stipulates the premises of a diplomatic mission are inviolable.

In connection with the same case, the court also decided not to approve seizure of Japanese government assets that was sought to pay legal costs, citing the possibility that doing so could violate international law.

Under the deal struck in December 2015, the Japanese government contributed ¥1 billion to a foundation set up in South Korea to help the women financially.

Nine of the 20 plaintiffs in the second case subsequently received cash from the foundation, but a lawyer for them says the money cannot be considered as proper compensation as it was not based on a legally binding bilateral agreement.

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