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Court ruling on ‘comfort women’ cases imminent

The Seoul Central District Court (Yonhap)
The Seoul Central District Court (Yonhap)

 A South Korean court is set to rule on two lawsuits filed against the Japanese government by Korean women who were forced to work in Japan’s military brothels during World War II, with the decision likely to impact the already fragile state of bilateral relations.

The Seoul Central District Court is set to decide Friday on a case filed against the Japanese government by 12 plaintiffs -- Korean victims and victims’ bereaved family members -- demanding 100 million won ($92,500) each as compensation for the mental distress and financial losses they suffered as a result of Japan’s wartime atrocities.

The verdict, coming nearly eight years after the legal process started, is to be the first regarding a civil lawsuit here against Japan on behalf of the euphemistically labeled “comfort women.”

In August 2013, victims including the now-deceased Bae Chun-hee submitted a petition for mediation to the Seoul Court for damages from the Japanese government. But after Tokyo refused to respond to the court’s attempts to start the mediation process, the victims requested a formal trial. The court accepted their request in January 2016.

Seoul then delivered written complaints to the Japanese government on multiple occasions, but Tokyo refused to receive the complaints, and requested the dismissal of the case on grounds of sovereign immunity -- a principle of international law that prevents one country from being sued by another without its consent.

Following years of delay due to Tokyo’s refusal, the trial opened in April 2020 with no Japanese representatives in attendance, after the Korean court considered the documents as having been delivered by publicizing the complaint and related documents.

Another similar lawsuit, filed by 20 victims and families of deceased victims in December 2016 and seeking damages in the amount of 200 million won each, is set for a ruling Jan. 13.

The case faced similar setbacks and was stalled for over three years before the first hearing took place in November 2019. Tokyo has dismissed the suit, again arguing “sovereign immunity.”

The lawsuit was filed to protest a 2015 diplomatic settlement between Seoul and Tokyo, sealed between then-President Park Geun-hye of Korea and Japan’s then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Under the deal, which was meant to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue, Japan apologized to the survivors and provided 1 billion yen ($9.71 million) to a fund to help the victims.

The survivors, however, say the agreement not only failed to meet their demands but violated their fundamental constitutional rights -- namely, their property rights and their rights to human dignity and diplomatic protection.

Upon taking office in 2017, President Moon Jae-in effectively abandoned the 2015 agreement, declaring that it was flawed and calling for additional steps from Japan. This widened the rift between the two countries, which have remained at odds over history for decades, ever since Japan’s colonial rule.

Tokyo continues to claim that all related issues, including the other thorny issue of compensating the Korean victims of forced labor in Japanese factories during colonial times, were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations.

If the court rules in favor of the victims, observers say Tokyo will most likely appeal. Any decision against Japan is feared to worsen tensions between the two countries. 

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com
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