A South Korean court has rejected a claim by South Korean sexual slavery victims and their relatives for compensation from the Japanese government over their wartime sufferings.
Activists representing sexual slavery victims condemned Wednesday’s decision and said the Seoul Central District Court was ignoring their struggles to restore the women’s honour and dignity.
The court ruled that the Japanese government should be exempt from civil jurisdiction under the principles of international law, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
The same court in January had called for the Japanese government to give 100 million South Korean won ($89,000) each to a separate group of 12 women who sued in 2013 over their wartime suffering as sex slaves, which was the first such ruling in the country.
Japanese officials had angrily rejected the January ruling, accusing South Korea of making “illegal” demands and undermining international law and bilateral relations.
Japan insists all wartime compensation issues were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalised relations with South Korea and the two countries agreed to “irreversibly” end the dispute in a 2015 deal. But after taking office in 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had effectively nullified the 2015 settlement, in which Japan issued an official apology and provided one billion yen ($9.6m) to a fund to help sexual slavery victims.
Reminders of Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula are contentious for both sides, with many surviving “comfort women” – a Japanese euphemism for the sex abuse victims – demanding Tokyo’s formal apology and compensation.
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.
About 240 South Korean women registered with the government as victims of sexual slavery by Japan’s wartime military – only 15 of whom are still alive.
Amnesty International described Wednesday’s ruling as a “major disappointment that fails to deliver justice” to survivors and their families.
“This ruling runs contrary to a decision by the same court in January, which required Japan to accept legal responsibility for its systematic sexual enslavement that amounted to crimes against humanity and war crimes,” said Amnesty’s East Asia Researcher Arnold Fang.
“What was a landmark victory for the survivors after an overly long wait is again now being called into question.”
South Korea and Japan, both staunch allies of the United States, are key trade partners and share other common interests, including fending off North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats.
But relations have deteriorated as historical rows flared in recent years, affecting trade and security arrangements, especially after South Korea’s Supreme Court in 2018 ordered two Japanese firms to compensate some wartime forced labourers.
The former labourers have sought to seize and sell some of the Japanese companies’ assets in South Korea as compensation, which Tokyo had warned would bring a “serious situation”.