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24 June


Seoul-Tokyo row to worsen following Korean court's ruling on compensation for former sex slaves

Korean court ordered Japan to compensate Korean women who were forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese troops during World War II

Photo: Yonhap

/NOVOSTIVL/ A Korean court ruling Friday ordering Japan to pay damages to Korean victims of wartime sex slavery is expected to aggravate the already frayed relations between Seoul and Tokyo. The two have been at odds over history-related issues, and matters were exacerbated after Japan imposed export restrictions on materials needed by Korean firms.

The move was an act of retaliation imposed after the Supreme Court here in 2018 ordered two Japanese companies to compensate surviving Korean victims of wartime forced labor. Japan immediately protested the latest court ruling, maintaining the position that all history-related issues were resolved under a 1965 treaty that normalized relations between the two countries.

In its ruling, the Seoul Central District Court ordered the Japanese government to make financial reparations of 100 million won ($91,000) for each of the 12 Korean victims listed in the suit, who were forced by the Japanese military to serve soldiers in brothels before and during World War II. The 12 victims filed the compensation suit against the Japanese government in 2013, and since the filing seven, including Bae Choon-hee, have passed away.

This marked the first time that a Korean court has issued such a ruling, even though several similar lawsuits have been submitted by wartime sex slavery victims. "The defendant's illegal acts were recognized by evidence, relevant material and testimony," the court said in its verdict. "The victims suffered from extreme, unimaginable mental and physical pain, but could not receive compensation for their suffering."

The Japanese government has stuck to its position that the case should be dropped, citing sovereign immunity referring to a legal doctrine where a state is immune from civil suits in foreign courts. But the court said it had jurisdiction in the case as it was about crimes against humanity committed systematically by the Empire of Japan.

In protest, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan summoned Korean ambassador to Japan, Nam Gwan-pyo, to lodge a complaint. According to Japan's Kyodo News, Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba expressed his regret over the "Korean court's denial of sovereign immunity," claiming that the ruling would never be accepted by the Japanese government.

For his part, Nam told reporters when leaving the ministry building, "I vowed to make an effort to ensure the issue is resolved without exerting an adverse influence on Korea-Japan relations. I stressed that the two sides need to maintain a calm and temperate manner to resolve the issue."

Experts said the latest ruling could deal a heavier blow to often prickly Seoul-Tokyo relations that have already been at their worst level. "There seems to be little possibility that Japan will comply with the court ruling," said Lee Won-deog, a professor of Japanese studies at Kookmin University.

"The ruling has also put the Korean government in a difficult position as it will have no choice but to respect the separation of legal, administrative and judicial powers."