'Comfort Women' Lose Lawsuit Against Japan Over Sexual Slavery During WWII

A South Korean court has dismissed a lawsuit filed against the Japanese government by a group of South Korean "comfort women" who were forced to work in brothels serving Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Citing "sovereign immunity," which allows a state to be immune from a civil suit in foreign courts, the Seoul Central District Court rejected the case brought forth by 20 people, including surviving victims of wartime sexual slavery and the families of some who have died.

Under the lawsuit, the group sought a total of 3 billion won (over $2.6 million) in reparations from the Japanese government.

The court said in Wednesday's ruling: "Diplomatic conflict will be inevitable in the process of sentencing and enforcing if the exception of sovereign immunity is recognized.

"Victims suffered tremendously, and the efforts and results by the South Korean governments seem to have been not enough to help them recover from their sufferings," the court said, noting the issue should be resolved through "diplomatic" efforts.

The latest ruling follows an earlier one made by the same court in January, which ordered Japan to compensate 12 women who were forced to work in wartime brothels with 100 million won each.

At the time, the court rejected Japan's claim that the lawsuit should be dismissed on the basis of sovereign immunity. The court said the principle should not apply to systematic crimes against humanity.

Justice Kim Jeong-gon said in the January ruling: "It was a crime against humanity that was systematically, deliberately and extensively committed by Japan in breach of international norms.

"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."

In Wednesday's ruling, the court also cited the 2015 bilateral agreement between the two countries, which saw Japan issue an official apology and provide 1 billion yen ($9.6 million) to a foundation set up to offer financial aid to comfort women victims.

The court said Wednesday that some of the women received money from the foundation set up under the 2015 deal.

Nine of the 20 people who filed the latest lawsuit were reported to have received funds via the 2015 agreement. However, a lawyer for the group claimed the funds cannot be considered proper compensation as it was not based on a legally binding bilateral agreement.

One of the surviving victims in the latest lawsuit, 92-year-old Lee Yong-soo, expressed dismay over the latest ruling, calling it "outrageous."

Over recent months, she has urged for the case to be taken to the International Court of Justice.

Speaking in tears outside the court, she said Wednesday: "I've been working for all of the victims, not only for me. I hope you do know that.

"But whether the result is good or bad, I will take the case to the International Court of Justice," she said.

Her lawyer Lee Sang-hui said the legal team and the 20 people who lodged the latest lawsuit would be discussing whether to appeal Wednesday's ruling.

The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, an advocacy group for the victims based in the South Korean capital Seoul, condemned Wednesday's ruling as "shameful" at a press conference.

The group noted the ruling was contradictory to the decision made in December 2019 by the Constitutional Court that the 2015 agreement was "political" and therefore not legally binding.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in effectively nullified the 2015 deal after taking office in 2017.

The group said Wednesday: "More than anything, the court failed to offer words of comfort for the victims to help them recover their dignity as human beings throughout the one-hour hearing, although Lee Yong-soo made an appearance herself.

"It put priority on national interest over victims' rights....history will remember the ruling as a shameful one," the group said, adding it will "do everything" it can to bring justice.

Newsweek has contacted the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the office of President Moon and the International Court of Justice for comment.

According to some historians, there were around 200,000 victims, mostly from Korea. The victims were forced to provide sex to Japanese troops during the colonial era, which saw Japan occupy the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, sometimes under the pretext of offering employment or paying off a relative's debt.

In South Korea, there are only 15 surviving victims of sexual slavery during World War II registered with the government, who are mostly in their 80s and 90s.

South Korean comfort woman lawsuit April 2021
Former South Korean "comfort woman" Lee Yong-soo (center) speaking to reporters on April 21 following a court ruling that rejected a lawsuit filed against the Japanese government over wartime sexual slavery. Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images