South Korea ‘Comfort Women’ Compensation Verdict Angers Japan

A South Korean court ordered Japan to compensate women forced to work in its World War II-era brothels, a landmark decision that angered Tokyo and inflamed tensions between the U.S. allies just before Joe Biden takes office.

The Seoul District Court on Friday made what is thought to be first decision ordering Japan to compensate what are euphemistically known as “comfort women,” in a case brought on behalf of 12 of the woman. It ordered the Japanese government to pay 100 million won ($91,000) each to surviving women and family members of those who died.

“The plaintiffs seem to have suffered extreme mental and physical pain,” the court said in its decision. The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government in 2013, demanding 100 million won ($92,500) each for compensation.

The court said Japan has refused to accept documents related to the matter and it rejected claims that Tokyo can invoke state immunity to the lawsuit, saying the wartime trafficking case is “against humanitarianism.”

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called for the case to be dismissed, saying under international law, a sovereign nation can’t be subject to the rulings of another country’s court.

“Our country absolutely cannot accept this kind of verdict,” Suga said. “So we strongly urge the South Korean government to take steps to rectify this situation, which is a breach of the law.”

The South Korean government “respects the court’s decision and will do everything it can to restore the dignity of the victims,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement, adding it would work with Japan to “continue constructive and future-oriented cooperation.”

In 2015, Japan and South Korea announced a “final and irreversible” agreement that came with a personal apology to the women from former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as well as about $9.3 million for a compensation fund.

Some of the women protested, arguing the deal was made without consultations and violated their constitutional rights. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office in 2017, has effectively shut down the fund, widening the rift between the two U.S. military allies crucial to check China’s growing global clout and North Korea’s atomic ambitions.

In September, Moon was dealt a blow when prosecutors brought embezzlement charges against a lawmaker in his ruling party, Yoon Mee-hyang, alleging she illegally diverted donations and government subsidies to a support group for comfort women when she was leading it.

Yoon has denied the charges in the case that came to light last year when a survivor of the wartime trafficking accused the group of raising funds to enrich itself and doing little to help women who were forced into sexual servitude.

Tensions further flared between the neighbors after a series of South Korean court decisions from late 2018 demanding Japan pay compensation to Koreans conscripted to work at Japanese factories and mines during the country’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

The U.S. was forced to step in when South Korea threatened in 2019 to withdraw from a joint intelligence-sharing agreement, with Moon backing down at the last minute after facing pressure from Washington.

Japan says all claims were “settled completely and finally” under a 1965 agreement, which accompanied the treaty establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries.By contrast, the Moon administration believes the individual suffering of many victims was not covered by the treaty.

Japan paid the equivalent of $300 million -- $2.5 billion in today’s money -- and extended $200 million in low-interest loans. The then-struggling South Korea invested the money in industries that eventually helped turn it into an economic powerhouse.

Historians say anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women -- many of them Korean -- were forced into service in Japan’s military brothels.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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