A South Korean court dismissed a lawsuit against Japan to compensate women forced to work in its World War II-era front-line brothels, a boost for Tokyo amid a series of Korean court rulings awarding damages that sent relations plummeting between the U.S. allies.
The Seoul Central District Court ruled Wednesday that Japan had sovereign immunity in the case brought on behalf of 20 plaintiffs, and as a foreign state, was not liable to pay compensation in a South Korean civil suit.
The court said in its decision that diplomatic friction with Japan would be “inevitable” if the principle of state immunity is denied. It added a 2015 bilateral agreement between South Korea and Japan that set up a compensation fund for the victims euphemistically called “comfort women” was still in effect.
The ruling came after the same Seoul court, but with a different panel of judges and plaintiffs, in January reached a landmark decision that ordered the Japanese government to pay 100 million won ($90,000) each in the case brought on behalf of 12 other women forced to work in front-line brothels.
That decision, which came just before Joe Biden took office, widened the rift between the two U.S. military allies crucial to check China’s growing global clout and North Korea’s atomic ambitions. Once in the White House, Biden sent his top envoys on their debut trip abroad in their posts to Japan and South Korea to ease tensions in the two countries that host the bulk of the U.S. military presence in Asia.
Japan has said the lawsuits violated international law and should be dismissed. Tokyo also said all claims were “settled completely and finally” under a 1965 agreement, which accompanied the treaty establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Japan’s top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato refrained from commenting on the Wednesday decision as Tokyo examines the ruling. He added in a news briefing, “the January ruling violated international law and the agreement between Japan and South Korea.”
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement the government would like to refrain from making detailed comments on the court’s decision, adding Seoul will do all it can to “restore the honor and dignity” of the women. The government has previously said it believes the individual suffering of many victims was not covered by the treaty.
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.
But 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, made by his predecessor.
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.|
Historians say anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women — many of them Korean — were forced into service in Japan’s military brothels.
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