Seoul Court Delivers Shock ‘Comfort Women’ Verdict

Surprise decision will cheer Japan but the emotive issue won't likely be put to rest until the UN's ICJ weighs in


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In a surprise, if not shock, judgment that will infuriate locals but may placate neighboring Japanese, a South Korean court on Wednesday rejected a compensation suit filed by 20 former “comfort women” against Tokyo.

The same court had earlier reached the opposite judgment in a near-identical case in January.

Relations between the two neighbors, long troubled by historical issues and a dispute over the sovereignty of a pair of islets in the sea between them, look set to remain dire. Japan’s decision last week to release irradiated water from its crippled Fukushima nuclear reactor into the Pacific has become the latest bone in an endless series of contentions.

Meanwhile, and regardless of local court decisions, activists and a high-profile former comfort woman are lobbying to resolve the vexed and emotive issue of the wartime brothels once and for all – by placing it before the impartial eyes of the UN’s International Court of Justice.

But further complicating the issue, both Seoul and Tokyo are competing to curry favor with Washington, which seeks a trilateral united front in East Asia against a rising China. Given this, one related party suggested to Asia Times that Seoul may, in order to accommodate Washington’s wishes, have exerted leverage on the court to ameliorate its stance against Japan.

Surprise decision

Seoul District Court Wednesday cited the principle of “sovereign immunity”, an international legal protocol that grants a country protection against civil suits filed in foreign courts.

The judges in Wednesday’s case appeared to have an eye on diplomacy as well as justice, saying: “When we recognize exemptions of sovereign immunity, diplomatic clashes will inevitably ensue.”

The court cited court cases after World War II that were rejected on the principle. In 2012, the UN’s International Court of Justice overturned Italy’s seizure of German diplomatic assets. Those assets had been taken in order to remunerate wartime Italian forced laborers.

Wednesday’s decision was surprising because the same Seoul court – albeit, with a different panel of judges – had reached an opposite conclusion in January in an almost identical case bought by 12 former comfort women, when it granted them each 100 million won (US$89,600) in damages to be paid by Tokyo.

Captured comfort women in Myitkyina on August 14 in 1944.jpg

Comfort women (comfort girls) captured by U.S. Army, August 14 1944, Myitkyina. (Public Domain)

That judgment had referred to the precedent set by domestic Italian courts in the above case rather than the final outcome of the case at the ICJ. The Seoul court had also, at the time, made the point that “systematic crimes against humanity” superseded legalities.

Moreover, the same court Wednesday appeared to slightly dilute its decision in the January case, stating that Japan does not have to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees due to international diplomatic laws, Yonhap news agency reported. That reversed its earlier decision, in which it had called for Tokyo to foot those bills in addition to paying damages.

Tokyo had refused to attend either court and has not made any payments. It characterized the January judgment, as well as yet another judgment by a different South Korean court in 2018 that had found on behalf of Korean forced laborers and seized Japanese corporate assets, as breaches of international law.

Tokyo also accuses Seoul of unilaterally overturning a deal on comfort women reached in 2015 between the two capitals under which Japan made a statement of apology and paid compensation.

While a majority of then-living comfort women accepted the Japanese monies, a vocal minority refused, angrily insisting they had not been consulted about the deal and calling Japan’s apology insincere.

Seoul’s Moon Jae-in administration has disowned the agreement, made under its predecessor administration, and frozen the funds.

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