A South Korean court yesterday ordered the Japanese government to pay compensation to 12 World War II “comfort women” or their families, in an unprecedented ruling that prompted an immediate denunciation by Tokyo.
The Seoul Central District Court ruled that Japan should pay the victims 100 million won (US$91,446) each.
It is the first civilian legal case in South Korea against Tokyo by wartime victims of Japanese troops, who were euphemistically labeled “comfort women.”
The ruling comes despite a 1965 treaty between Seoul and Tokyo, which declared that claims between them and their nationals had been settled.
Imperial Japan was responsible for the comfort women system, the court said in its verdict.
“The plaintiffs, who were in their late teens or early 20s, were subjected to repeated sexual exploitation,” it said. “It amounted to an illegal act against humanity and the defendant has an obligation to compensate the victims for their mental suffering.”
Ties between the neighbors are strained by Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula — which is still bitterly resented — and have plunged to their worst in years under South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Tokyo denounced the ruling as a contravention of international law and summoned the South Korean ambassador to protest, demanding that Seoul intervene.
“It is extremely regrettable that the Seoul Central District Court denied the principle of sovereign immunity,” the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “This is unacceptable to the Japanese government.”
The ruling came in a legal process that began eight years ago and only five of the original plaintiffs are still alive, the others replaced by family members.
“I am deeply moved by today’s ruling,” said Kim Kang-won, the women’s lawyer. “It is the first such verdict for victims who suffered at the hands of Japanese troops.”
Speaking to reporters after the verdict, he insisted that at the time of the 1965 treaty, “the issue of comfort women was not discussed at all.”
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