S. Korea court rules in favour of victims of wartime sexual slavery

By AFP   November 23, 2023 | 06:35 am PT
S. Korea court rules in favour of victims of wartime sexual slavery
Lee Young-soo (2nd R), 95, a victim of Japan's alleged forced sexual slavery during World War II, is presented with flowers at a Lawyers for a Democratic Society meeting in Seoul on Nov. 23, 2023, after the High Court overturned a lower court's rejection of a damages suit filed by victims of the wartime abuses. Photo by Yonhap/AFP
A South Korean court on Thursday ordered Japan to compensate 16 women over forced sexual slavery during World War II, overturning a lower-court ruling that had dismissed the case.

The ruling comes after a lower court in 2021 said the women forced to serve Japanese troops -- euphemistically labelled "comfort women" -- were not entitled to compensation, citing "sovereign immunity" for Tokyo.

But the Seoul High Court ruled Thursday it was "reasonable to say sovereign immunity should not be respected... in case of illegal conduct", according to a court document seen by AFP.

It ordered that some 200 million won ($154,000) be paid to each of the complainants.

The court said the victims were "forcibly abducted or lured into the sexual enslavement".

It ruled that as a result, they had suffered "damage" and "could not live a normal life post-war".

Lee Young-soo, a 95-year-old victim and one of the 16 plaintiffs, threw her arms high in joy as she exited a court building.

Visibly moved by the ruling, she told reporters: "I am very thankful... I thank the victims who have passed away."

Mainstream historians say up to 200,000 women -- mostly from Korea, but also other parts of Asia including China -- were forced to become sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

The issue has long bedevilled bilateral ties between Seoul and Tokyo, which colonised the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945.

Japan insists that a 1965 treaty, under which the two countries restored diplomatic ties with a reparations package of about $800 million in grants and cheap loans, settled all claims relating to the colonial period.

Japan regrets ruling

Tokyo's Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa said Thursday's ruling was "clearly contrary to international law and agreements between the two countries."

She called the verdict "extremely regrettable and absolutely unacceptable".

South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was "looking into details related to today’s verdict".

The ruling comes as the conservative South Korean government of President Yoon Suk Yeol has sought to bury the historical hatchet and improve ties with Tokyo to jointly confront growing military threats from North Korea.

The Japanese government denies it is directly responsible for the wartime abuses, maintaining that the victims were recruited by civilians and that military brothels were commercially operated.

The issue of sexual enslavement by the Imperial Japanese Army first came to public attention in 1991, when victim Kim Hak Sun came forward to testify about her experience as a "comfort woman" -- the first Korean to speak about it publicly.

Her action encouraged hundreds of victims from Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and the Netherlands to do the same.

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