Seoul court rejects sexual slavery claim against Tokyo

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) — A South Korean court yesterday rejected a claim by South Korean sexual slavery victims and their relatives who sought compensation from the Japanese government over their wartime sufferings.

The Seoul Central District Court based its decision on diplomatic considerations and principles of international law that grant states immunity from jurisdiction of foreign courts. This appeared to align with the position maintained by Tokyo, which had boycotted the court proceedings and insists all wartime compensation issues were settled under a 1965 treaty normalising relations with South Korea.

Activists representing sexual slavery victims denounced the decision and said the Seoul Central District Court was ignoring their struggles to restore the women’s honour and dignity. They said in a statement that the plaintiffs would appeal.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the ruling would affect relations between the estranged United States (US) allies. They spent years escalating their feud in public over issues stemming from Japan’s brutal occupation of Korea through the end of World War II before facing pressure from the Biden administration to mend ties and coordinate action in the face of threats from China and North Korea.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katunobu Kato noted the decision conflicted with a previous ruling on a separate case that found the Japanese government responsible for compensating sexual slavery victims. Kato said he wouldn’t comment on the new ruling before examining the details more closely, but he added that Tokyo’s stance on the sexual slavery issue remains unchanged. He said the previous ruling violated international law and was unacceptable.

“Japan continues to strongly ask South Korea to take appropriate steps in order to correct the state of international violation,” he said.

The 20 plaintiffs, who had sued Japanese government in 2016, included 11 women who were forced to work at Japanese military brothels during World War II and relatives of other women who have since died.

The court said international law and previous rulings from South Korea’s Supreme Court make it clear that foreign governments should be immune from civil damage suits in respect of their sovereignty.

“If we go against the (principles) of current customary international law regarding the immunity of states and deny immunity for the defendant, a diplomatic clash with the defendant will become unavoidable following the verdict and the process to forcibly execute it,” the court said in a statement.

One of the plaintiffs — 92-year-old Lee Yong-soo — has been campaigning for South Korea and Japan to settle their decades-long impasse over sexual slavery by seeking judgement from the United Nations (UN) International Court of Justice.

She has said it has become clear the issue cannot be resolved through bilateral talks or rulings by South Korea’s domestic courts that have been repeatedly rejected by the Japanese government, and that the friction between governments has hurt friendships between civilians.

“Regardless of the verdict, we will go to the International Court of Justice,” she told reporters after yesterday’s ruling.

Tens of thousands of women across Japanese-occupied Asia and the Pacific were moved to front-line brothels used by the Japanese military. 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.