In a First, South Korea Court Orders Japan to Compensate Wartime Sex Slaves

Only five of the 12 former ‘comfort women’ have survived to see the court decision.
Junhyup Kwon
Seoul, KR
January 8, 2021, 3:10pm
comfort women japan south korea sex slaves
A statue of a teenage girl symbolizing former ‘comfort women’ who served as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Photo: JUNG YEON-JE / AFP

A South Korean court on Friday ordered the Japanese government to compensate 12 women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during World War II, the first legal decision South Korea made against Japan.

It was the first time that the South Korean judiciary has sought to hold the Japanese government responsible for its wartime treatment of so-called “comfort women.” Japan has called the ruling “unacceptable.” 

The Seoul Central District Court of Korea ruled that Japan should pay the 12 Korean victims 100 million won ($91,500) each, saying that what the Japanese government committed was “clearly illegal acts” and the women suffered extreme pain.

A judge at the court, Kim Jeong-gon, said the government “organized and planned the ‘comfort women’ system to carry out a war of aggression during World War II.”

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Historical spats rooted in Japan’s colonial rule of South Korea and Japanese wartime atrocities have continued to be a major sticking point between the Asian democracies.

The Friday ruling has angered the Japanese government. Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba summoned South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo to protest the decision, telling him that it is “utterly unacceptable,” Kyodo News reported.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters “the lawsuit should be dismissed,” according to Japan’s Sankei News.

The Japanese government said that Japan isn’t subject to Korean jurisdiction under the principle of sovereign immunity under international law. 

But the Korean court said that sovereign immunity doesn’t apply in this case, saying that the Japanese government violated international norms by committing systematic and wide-ranging crimes against humanity.

Shin Yul, a professor of Political Science and Diplomacy at Myongji University, told VICE World News that the impact of the case on the two countries’ relations, while negative, was expected.

“When they [Japan] need the relations with South Korea, things are going to be very different,” he said, pointing out the similar threats the countries’ face from North Korea.

The Friday ruling stemmed from a 2013 lawsuit filed by 12 South Korean women against Tokyo to demand compensation. Only five of them are known to be alive today.

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The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery and the Korea Bar Association welcomed the decision.

“I’m so happy that I don’t know what to say,” Lee Yong-soo, a survivor, said on the YouTube channel of the civic group Daegu Citizen Forum for Halmuni. “Now, I have something to say to other victims who already passed away... Both Korean and Japanese students should learn history and never forget this problem.”

Between 1932 and 1945, an estimated 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also other Japanese-occupied countries including China and the Philippines, were coerced into sexual slavery for Japan’s troops. 

A ruling over a similar lawsuit is due Wednesday next week. Twenty plaintiffs, including survivors and family members, are demanding compensation from Tokyo.

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