A South Korean court ordered Japan on Friday to compensate 12 women who were forced to work in wartime Japanese brothels, in a ruling that could rekindle diplomatic and history feuds between the two countries.
Reminders of Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule are contentious for both sides, with many survivors of “comfort women” – a Japanese euphemism for the sex abuse victims – demanding Tokyo’s formal apology and compensation.
Japan says the issue was settled under a 1965 treaty that normalised diplomatic ties, and the two countries agreed to “irreversibly” end the dispute in a 2015 deal.
But the Seoul Central District Court ordered Japan pay each of the women 100 million won ($91,000), saying neither of the pacts can cover their right to seek compensation.
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.
“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.”
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 women’s lawyer, Kim Kang-won, said he was “deeply moved” as the ruling acknowledged the Japanese government was accountable for the atrocity.