The Koreas | Diplomacy | East Asia

Conflict Between South Korea and Japan Surges Again With Court’s ‘Comfort Women’ Decision

The Japanese government rejected a court ruling on compensation for South Korean women forced into sexual slavery during World War II. 

Mitch Shin
Conflict Between South Korea and Japan Surges Again With Court’s ‘Comfort Women’ Decision

Portraits of late former South Korean comfort women are displayed near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

On January 8, the Seoul Central District Court ordered the Japanese government to pay 100 million Korean won ($91,800) each to 12 Korean “comfort women” who had been sexually abused by the Japanese military during World War II. The lawsuit had been filed by 12 survivors against the Japanese government in 2016; six of them passed away as the trial progressed and were represented by their bereaved family members. The ruling was confirmed when the Japanese government rejected its chance to appeal on January 23.

Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide said on the day of the ruling that “South Korea should take steps to correct violations of international law and that the ruling will never be accepted.” Japanese government officials did not participate in the trial, insisting that the ruling has no effect thanks to the principle of sovereign immunity.

In a response to the backlash from Japan, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement released January 23 that Seoul will not seek additional compensation from Tokyo. Also, it said that the government will try its best to reach an amicable settlement by communicating with the comfort women.

Under the previous administrations in both countries, Japan and South Korea had reached what was supposed to be a “final and irrevocable resolution” to the comfort women issue. However, the proposed solution was rejected by many of the survivors themselves. In its statement, the South Korean Foreign Ministry said the government acknowledges that the 2015 agreement was formally reached between the two countries, but added that the agreement cannot solve the issue without reflecting the comfort women’s opinions. Also, the ministry said it does not have the right or authority to prevent the victims from raising their voices on this issue, rejecting Tokyo’s consistent request that Seoul take care of the issue in order to prevent further diplomatic disputes.

Earlier, in October 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that two Japanese corporations must compensate Koreans for wartime forced labor. Tokyo took retaliatory measures toward Seoul in the form of export regulations in July 2019. Experts say the vicious cycle is likely to repeat itself, particularly as the Suga administration’s approval rating is quite low. Seeking to foment nationalism through a spat with Seoul could be a tool to shore up public support for Suga.

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The Japanese government argues that it does not have to comply with the Korean court’s ruling because of the principle of sovereign immunity under international law makes sense. But in 2006, Japan’s Supreme Court ruled that a foreign government is not exempt from civil jurisdiction unless there is a fear of sovereignty infringement. The ruling came in a case where a Japanese corporation sued the Pakistani government for lack of payment on a contract. The Japanese corporation won that lawsuit between a private actor and a national government.

If Tokyo does not comply with the South Korean court’s ruling, Seoul can enforce the judgment by confiscating assets of the Japanese government in South Korea. However, the victims would have to file another lawsuit in court – and as most of the comfort women are over 80 years old, time is of the essence.

Japan also argues that the issue of compensation for past abuses – whether the comfort women or forced laborers – has already been resolved through past agreements made with South Korea.

Citing the 1965 agreement signed between the two countries, the Japanese government has argued that the question of compensation for comfort women has been closed. However, the agreement does not explicitly state that no claims can be made by individuals regarding abuses suffered during Japan’s colonial rule over Korea. South Korea’s government holds that the 1965 agreement ended the question of compensation between the two governments, but does not preclude cases being brought by individual citizens.

More recently, Japan has pointed to the 2015 agreement to avoid taking further action on the comfort women issue. Tokyo agreed to pay about 10.7 billion won ($90.5 million) to operate a foundation established by Seoul for the comfort women. In essence, Tokyo intended to buy the silence of the comfort women. Just after reaching the agreement, Japanese government officials, especially former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, started to manipulate the facts of the issue to the international community. In response, the comfort women began to speak out more than ever to the international community.

Notably, the agreement was signed between the two governments, and the South Korean government at the time did communicate with the victims during negotiations. Thus the comfort women announced they could not accept the deal as it completely excluded their opinions and demands. That eventually led the South Korean President Moon Jae-in to decide not to abide by the agreement after he was elected president in 2017, although he did not withdraw from the agreement officially.

According to local news reports after the 2015 agreement was reached, some of the comfort women had agreed to receive the compensation. However, there was no sincere apology from Tokyo, which had been a consistent demand by the victims for over two decades. A majority of comfort women made clear that money is not what they want from the Japanese government.

“The problem is that Japan has always treated the issues related to its history like propaganda, which is irresponsible behavior as a country to communicate with other countries,” Hosaka Yuji, a professor at Sejong University in Seoul, told The Diplomat. “The Japanese government has said that the Korean comfort women were not sexual slaves and were not forced [into sexual slavery] by the Japanese military during World War II. [Japan’s stance is that] they were voluntary prostitutes.”

Kim Bok-dong, one of the comfort women, once emphasized that teaching accurate history regarding this issue to Japanese students is extremely important to ensure that these historical disputes don’t carry over to the next generation. However, Tokyo makes sure that only its narrative is included in authorized textbooks.

“After the 1993 Kono statement, comfort women issues were stated in detail in Japanese history textbooks for few years, but since the right-wing government has taken power, only a few textbooks contain content on this issue in Japan,” Hosaka said, added it is technically impossible for Japanese students to learn this issue accurately at their schools.

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For these reasons, Koreans keep asking Japan to be held accountable for what its ancestors and predecessors did.

This long-time conflict began on August 14, 1991, when Kim Hak-soon revealed that she had been forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. The issue had not been raised for decades after World War II, but Kim’s courage brought attention from the international community and encouraged other survivors to step forward. The South Korean government has registered 239 comfort women and a dozen comfort women who are over 80 years old are living in South Korea.

After Kim’s testimony, a so-called “Wednesday Demonstration” began in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in January 1992, when the Japanese prime minister visited South Korea to hold a Korea-Japan summit. That developed into a regular Wednesday demonstration with support from Koreans.

At the time of the first rally, 234 comfort women participated in the protest. The demonstration is currently temporarily suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Only a few surviving comfort women participated in the demonstrations last year.

Many Koreans want the Japanese emperor to be the one to apologize directly and firmly to the comfort women, as they believe his grandfather is one of the culprits of World War II. However, the Japanese government has repeatedly said it will never happen.

It is not a surprising comment, considering the way Japan has dealt with the issue. But Koreans continue to insist that Japan be held responsible for the atrocious sexual assault on Korean women.