SEOUL – The Japanese government cannot be forced to provide fiscal compensation to South Korean women coerced into sexual slavery for Tokyo military personnel during World War II, a Seoul court said, adding new legal uncertainties to a long-standing dispute that the diplomacy failed to resolve.
Wednesday’s decision by the Seoul central district court broke with a verdict on a similar case, heard in the same court, a few months ago. In January, a different group of judges ordered the Japanese government to pay about $ 90,000 in damages to a dozen Korean women.
The two verdicts disagreed over whether the Japanese government should enjoy state immunity, a clause in international law that protects sovereign countries from being tried in foreign courts. The January verdict concluded that the atrocities against South Korean victims were so severe that they replaced the state immunity exception.
On Wednesday, the judges cited a 2012 decision by the International Court of Justice, which rejected a World War II case of Italian victims seeking reparations from Germany, using state immunity as a justification. Nearly two dozen former sex slaves sought approximately $ 2.7 million in compensation from Japan.
“This court does not disagree that the victims have the right to demand compensation,” said the judges in their decision. “But, from now on, suing a foreign country cannot be allowed.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyers said after Wednesday’s verdict that they would likely appeal. South Korean appellate courts – and possibly the country’s Supreme Court – will give the final decisions on the contradictory decisions of the lower courts. These lawsuits can take years, say local legal experts.
Of the nearly two dozen plaintiffs, who include relatives or supporters, only four of the victims are still alive, their lawyers said. One of them, Lee Yong-soo, 92, came to court in a wheelchair and carrying a cane. “All I can say is that I am amazed,” she said.
These cases are part of a series of disputes between the United States’ two main Asian allies. Disputes often double, or are intensified, by unresolved tensions over decades.
In 2019, the two countries fought over Japan’s decision to restrict some technology-related exports to South Korea, with Tokyo removing its neighbor as a favorite trading partner. Seoul attacked Tokyo’s announcement last week that it would release water with a radioactive form of hydrogen into the Pacific Ocean. Victims of forced labor in Korea have won legal victories in recent years over unpaid work during Japan’s colonial rule from 1910 to 1945, angering the Tokyo government.
Japan, over the decades, has repeatedly claimed that it has already paid for financial reparations. Tokyo refers to two agreements with the Seoul government, including a 2015 agreement, in which Shinzo Abe, then Prime Minister of Japan, expressed his “most sincere apologies” to Korean women.
The agreement, six years ago, sought to address Korean victims at the center of “comfort women” cases. Japan agreed to provide $ 8.3 million to establish a foundation that would help Korean women. But the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in dropped out of the deal after taking office in 2017, saying the deal did not fully meet the victims’ wishes.
South Korean judges in Wednesday’s ruling said the 2015 agreement is still in effect.
Tokyo welcomed the decision, classifying it as appropriate “insofar as it reflects the Japanese government’s position on sovereign immunity,” said government spokesman Katsunobu Kato. The two countries’ relations “are in an unprecedented difficult situation because South Korea has not been observing international law,” added Kato.
South Korean higher courts must now determine which of the two court decisions is more justified, legal experts said. At most, courts could only seize and liquidate Japanese government assets in South Korea to compensate victims, they said.
Ms. Lee, the plaintiff, said she supports taking the case to the International Court of Justice. Doing so, given the Italy-Germany precedent, would likely result in a favorable decision for Japan. But the international court may recognize that war crimes were committed by Japan, and this may cause the Tokyo government to behave differently, said Ethan Shin, a legal expert at the Institute of Legal Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.
All the victims really want is a sincere apology from Japan – not the money, said Shin, who provided legal advice to victims of sexual slavery, although he did not represent them in court.
Previous Japanese apologies, including Abe’s in 2015, fell short in part because Japanese authorities took subsequent measures that undermined the sincerity of previous expressions of sadness, he said.
—Peter Landers in Tokyo contributed to this article.
Write to Andrew Jeong at [email protected]
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