The Seoul District Court Friday ordered the Government of Japan to compensate 12 women who were forced to work in wartime brothels or “comfort stations” operated by the Japanese Empire during World War II. The court, presided over by Chief Judge Kim Jeong-Gon, termed the series of incidents as “crimes against humanity” and ruled that Japan should pay 100 million won to each of the women as compensation for their mental suffering. It also granted a provisional execution of the order for compensation which allows immediate seizure of the Japanese government assets.
Wartime brothels were established and systematically operated by the Japanese empire to mobilize manpower, promote the morale of soldiers and pursue effective leadership during war. Victims often in their mid-teens to just over 20 years old faced severe sexual injuries and violence. They lived without proper food, clothing or shelter and they struggled to readapt to society even after the war ended.
In the ruling Judge Kim Jeong-gon held that “it was a crime against humanity that was systematically, deliberately and extensively committed by Japan in breach of international norms” and that “even if it was a country’s sovereign act, state immunity cannot be applied as it was committed against our citizens on the Korean peninsula that was illegally occupied by Japan”.
Japan claims that the issue has been settled under the Japan-Korea Claims and Economic Co-operation Agreement of 1965, which opened up diplomatic relations between the two countries. Over the military’s use of “comfort women”, Japan continues to hold that the countries had arrived at a “final and irreversible solution” in 2015 when Japan had agreed to a one-time settlement of 1 billion yen and refused to participate in the lawsuit.
Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye had used the proceeds to establish the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation in support of the surviving women. Her successor, President Moon Jae-in, later dissolved the foundation amidst continuing domestic opposition against the 2015 agreement and Japan’s refusal to provide a formal apology.
Japan has issued a statement saying that the Central District Court has violated international law by denying the principle of sovereign immunity and granting relief to the plaintiffs. It termed the judgement as “absolutely unacceptable” and urged the Korean government to “take appropriate measures to correct violations of international law”.
The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also released a statement in support of the decision by the Central District Court and said it will make all efforts to recover the dignity and honour of the victims. The dispute can worsen diplomatic ties between the countries which have recently run into close controversies over historical issues.