A South Korean court’s decision Wednesday that contradicted a previous “comfort women” ruling may be seen as a win for Japan, but Tokyo is not celebrating the verdict as it does not expect tensions between the two neighboring countries to ease anytime soon.

The Seoul Central District Court tossed out a lawsuit by former comfort women — a euphemism for those who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II — demanding roughly ¥290 million in damages directly from the Japanese government to compensate for physical and psychological suffering. The dismissal was in direct contradiction to a January ruling delivered by a different group of judges in the same court.

Debilitated by a failure to stabilize soaring housing costs and election losses in key mayoral races, South Korean leader Moon Jae-in is in danger of essentially becoming a lame-duck president with his term expiring in May next year.

Unless he is able to propose solutions on the sensitive issue that will satisfy Tokyo, with any acquiescence risking further damage to his floundering support rate, he could be caught in a bind as U.S. President Joe Biden urges his country's two allies to work together to confront North Korea and China.

Wednesday’s court decision reflects Moon’s stance on Japan ties but it is too early to be optimistic, said Junya Nishino, a political science professor who studies Japan-South Korea relations at Keio University.

“It’s unmistakable that at the very least, the president does not want the relations to get any worse,” Nishino said. “At the same time, Moon’s stance on historical issues, which is getting support from the victims, hasn’t changed.”

Shortly after the court ruling in January that awarded compensation for the former comfort women — who were forced or coerced into sexual servitude under various circumstances, including abduction, deception and poverty — Moon said in a news conference he was “perplexed,” saying the 2015 deal struck between two countries marking “the final and irreversible resolution” of the comfort women issue was official.

“My impression was that Wednesday’s court decision was in line with Moon’s remarks at the January news conference,” Nishino said.

Moon's remarks marked a reversal on his earlier position that had cast doubt on the legitimacy of the deal, which established a foundation with ¥1 billion contributed by Japan. Still, his administration has been advocating for policies that put victims’ interests first, afraid of agitating voters that supported him for nixing the 2015 deal.

The plaintiffs vowed to appeal to a higher court.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry refrained from directly commenting on the dismissal but admonished Tokyo to demonstrate a spirit of remorse and self-examination.

South Korean protesters have their heads shaved during a protest against the Japanese government's decision to release treated water from the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant into the sea, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Tuesday. | AFP-JIJI
South Korean protesters have their heads shaved during a protest against the Japanese government’s decision to release treated water from the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant into the sea, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Tuesday. | AFP-JIJI

Wednesday’s decision called for Seoul to step up its diplomatic efforts to resolve the problem, but the window of opportunity is rapidly closing under Moon’s administration.

More than anything else, Moon is struggling domestically. His promise to bring down housing prices in the Seoul metropolitan area has been unsuccessful. His Democratic Party lost crucial mayoral elections in Seoul and Busan earlier this month. A Gallup poll from last week revealed his approval rating hit a record low of 30% since he took office in 2017.

An election to choose Moon’s successor will take place in March next year, leaving roughly a year for Moon to work on building his legacy.

Although improving relations with Japan may not be a part of that legacy-building for Moon, the president may be compelled to take action to ameliorate ties as Biden stresses a united front in East Asia, Nishino said.

“If the Moon administration has any power left, it could advance the issue by convincing the public, but it is not in such a place,” Nishino said. “What we should pay attention to is, as the administration is under attack from all sides, how it will handle its relations with Japan.”

Meanwhile, the Japanese side has had little to say about its neighbor.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato on Wednesday said as long as the court validates its position on sovereign immunity, a principle in international law that says a state is not subjected to the jurisdiction of another country’s court, the Japanese government views the decision as “appropriate.”

“Whether it’s ‘comfort women’ or wartime labor issues, our understanding that the bilateral relations are in a severe state and at an unprecedented level hasn’t changed, since South Korea does not adhere to international law and does not implement agreements between the two countries,” Kato said.

Former South Korean
Former South Korean “comfort woman” Lee Yong-soo speaks to the media after a court ruling on a case against the Japanese government at the Seoul Central District Court on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI

The bilateral relationship, which had previously been turbulent at times, became particularly tense in the aftermath of 2018 South Korean Supreme Court rulings that ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation for wartime labor. The judicial decision contradicted a key 1965 pact that was concluded to settle all post-colonial compensation issues, covering both comfort women and wartime labor.

The ruling unleashed a subsequent tit-for-tat fracas, with Tokyo tightening controls on exports of certain chemicals to South Korea and Seoul threatening to terminate a military-intelligence sharing pact. With Suga, who was seen as less hawkish than Shinzo Abe, taking over as prime minister in September last year, Seoul had hoped to restore damaged ties, but so far that hasn't come to fruition.

Asked about the possibility of Biden pressuring Japan and South Korea to reconcile, a senior foreign ministry official said in November last year, “Unlike human relations, there are things that we can’t compromise on when it comes to relations between countries. … We can’t make concessions with South Korea as the things being discussed pertain to the foundation (of the two countries).”

Wednesday’s court ruling will not help Japan-South Korea ties take a favorable turn, said Yuki Asaba, a professor of Korean studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

“The situation hasn’t hit rock bottom,” he said. “What South Korea shows is words, not specific actions." Referring to "trust, but verify" — the Russian proverb that U.S. President Ronald Reagan used to describe Washington's approach to the nuclear-armed Soviet Union — Asaba noted that the two countries still lack "trust."

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