South Korea appellate court orders Japan to compensate former victims of Japanese occupation sexual slavery News
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South Korea appellate court orders Japan to compensate former victims of Japanese occupation sexual slavery

The Seoul High Court rendered a decision on Thursday that ordered the Japanese government to compensate each of the former “comfort women” who initially brought a lawsuit in the Seoul Central District Court in 2016, according to South Korean news source KBS. The decision overturns an April 2021 decision from the district court and awards each of the 16 victims 200 million won (approximately 154,000 USD).

According to Korean media KBS, the appeal was brought by a group of 16 victims, most of whom were represented by bereaved family members. 95-year-old Lee Yong-soo as the only surviving victim. The victims were forced to serve as “comfort women” before and during World War II, which was a form of sexual slavery ran out of brothels operated by the Japanese military. The plaintiffs’ claims were first rejected by the Seoul Central District Court in April 2021, ruling that the Japanese government enjoys sovereign immunity under customary international law, which provides that a country’s exercise of sovereignty is not subject to trial by other countries’ courts.

In the appellate decision, the Seoul High Court rejected the applicability of the rule, holding that the forced sexual slavery of the Japanese military violated the international treaties to which Japan was a party at the time, as well as the Japanese criminal law. According to the Yonhap News Agency from South Korea, the court said, “”It is recognized that the defendant engaged in illegal acts in the course of mobilizing comfort women and appropriate compensation should be paid.” Overall, the court rendered the final decision in favor of the victims and ordered the Japanese government to pay a compensation of 200 million won to each of the individuals.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa made a statement on Thursday, calling the Seoul High Court’s decision “contrary to international law and agreements between the two countries, and therefore extremely regrettable and absolutely unacceptable.” She also urged South Korea to take appropriate measures to remedy its breaches. On the same day, Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Okano Masataka summoned South Korean Ambassador Yun Dukmin to lodge a “strong protest.” The Japanese government reiterated that the matters surrounding “comfort women” between the two countries had been settled completely and finally by the Agreement on the Settlement of Problem concerning Property and Claims and on the Economic Co-operation between Japan and the Republic of Korea of 1965 and the agreement between Japan and the Republic of Korea in 2015.

The term “comfort women” refers to victims of Japan’s forced sexual slavery before and during World War II, where hundreds of thousands of girls and women from Asian countries were abducted and forced to work in Japanese military brothels. A total of 240 people had registered with the government of South Korea as a victim. With the passing of a 91-year-old victim on May 2, 2023, there are only nine survivors left in South Korea now.

Japan claims to have made sincere efforts to solve the issues surrounding “comfort women,” including having established the Asian Women’s Fund in 1995, which provides “atonement money” to victims in other Asian countries, including South Korea. Successive Prime Ministers have also sent out letters expressing their “apology and remorse.” As it insists that the issues have been completely settled by the bilateral agreements signed in 1965 and 2015, Japan refuses to participate in any South Korean court proceedings related to the issue. Instead, Japan urges such lawsuits to be dismissed based on the principle of sovereign immunity.

In January 2021, the Seoul Central District Court supported the claims for damages brought by another group of former “comfort women.” The decision became final because the Japanese government refused to participate and therefore did not appeal. However, when trying to enforce that decision, the plaintiffs encountered the court’s refusal to seize the assets held by the Japanese government in South Korea because that could amount to an international law violation. The situation may happen again in the present case.