A South Korean court ordered Japan on Friday to compensate 12 women who were forced to work as sex slaves in wartime Japanese brothels, in a ruling that could rekindle diplomatic and history feuds between the two countries.
The Seoul Central District Court ruled that Japan should pay 100 million won ($91,000) to each of the victims.
“Evidence, relevant materials and testimonies show that the victims suffered from extreme, unimaginable mental and physical pain due to the illegal acts by the accused. But no compensation has been made for their suffering” the court said in its verdict.
It is the first civilian legal case in South Korea against Tokyo by wartime sex slaves for Japanese troops, who were euphemistically labelled “comfort women”.
The ruling comes despite a 1965 treaty between Seoul and Tokyo which declared claims between them and their nationals had been settled.
Reminders of Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule are contentious for both sides, with many survivors demanding Tokyo’s formal apology and compensation.
Japan says the issue was settled and the two countries agreed to “irreversibly” end the dispute in a 2015 deal.
The Seoul Central District Court ruled otherwise.
“It was a crime against humanity that was systematically, deliberately and extensively committed by Japan in breach of international norms,” Justice Kim Jeong-gon said in the ruling.
“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’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato called the verdict “unacceptable,” urging Seoul to make an “appropriate response”. Tokyo’s foreign ministry summoned South Korean Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-pyo to lodge a complaint.
Takeo Akiba, the top bureaucrat at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, who met Nam, said it is “extremely regrettable” that the ruling denied Tokyo sovereign immunity, which stipulates that a state is immune from court jurisdiction of a foreign country.
Japan will not appeal the ruling as doing so would put the country under South Korea’s jurisdiction, the Kyodo news agency quoted government spokesman Katsunobu Kato as saying.
Some historians estimate up to 200,000 Korean girls and women were forced to provide sex to Japanese troops during the colonial era, sometimes under the pretext of employment or to pay off a relative’s debt.
Only 16 registered Korean survivors are still alive and six of the 12 victims have died since they initiated the lawsuit in 2016.
The plaintiffs include 93-year-old Lee Ok Son, who lives at the House of Sharing, a home in Seoul established to provide shelter to Korean women who were forced into wartime brothels.
The women’s lawyer, Kim Kang-won, said he was “deeply moved” as the ruling acknowledged the Japanese government was accountable for the atrocity.
South Korea’s foreign ministry did not have an immediate comment, but Ambassador Nam said in Tokyo that he would strive to prevent the ruling from having an “undesirable impact” on ties.
“I emphasised that it was most important for both sides to respond in a calm, restrained manner in order to resolve the issue,” Nam told reporters after being called in.
South Korea and Japan, both staunch US allies, are key trade partners and share other common interests, including fending off North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats.
But relations have deteriorated at times over historical grievances, including after South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese firms to compensate some wartime forced labourers.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in effectively nullified the 2015 settlement, in which Japan issued an official apology and provided one billion yen ($9.6 million) to a fund to help the women victims.