A South Korean court on Friday ordered the Japanese government to pay compensation to 12 other World War II slaves or their families, in an unprecedented decision that led to the immediate dismissal of Tokyo.
The Seoul District Court ruled that Japan should pay the victims 100 million won ($ 91,000) each.
It is the first civil lawsuit against South Korea against Tokyo by sex slaves during wartime for Japanese troops, which was euphemistically labeled “comfort women”.
The verdict comes despite a 1965 agreement between Seoul and Tokyo which declared that claims between them and their citizens had been resolved.
Imperial Japan was responsible for the “consolation women” system, the court said in its ruling.
“The complainants, who were in their late teens or early 20s, were subjected to repeated sexual exploitation,” it said.
“It constituted an illegal act against humanity and the defendant has an obligation to compensate the victims for their mental suffering.”
Tokyo and Seoul are both major US allies, democracies and market economies, but their deepening divisions will give incoming US President Joe Biden an immediate foreign policy headache as he seeks to build a common front against China and North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Ties between neighbors are strained by Japan’s colonial rule in early 20th-century Korea, which is still bitterly upset on the peninsula, and has sunk to its worst in several years under South Korean center-left President Moon Jae-in.
Tokyo condemned Friday’s ruling as a violation of international law and called on Seoul’s ambassador to protest, demanding that the South Korean government intervene.
“It is extremely regrettable that the Seoul Central District Court denied the principle of sovereign immunity,” the Japanese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
“This is unacceptable to the Japanese government.”
Ordinary historians say that up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also other parts of Asia including China, were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II.
Friday’s verdict came in a legal process that began eight years ago and only five of the original appellants are still alive, the others being replaced by family members.
Tokyo boycotted the procedure and insisted that all compensation issues arising from its colonial rule be resolved in a 1965 treaty and a linked agreement that normalized diplomatic relations between neighbors.
Under them, Japan paid South Korea financial compensation – which Seoul used to contribute to its transformation into an economic power package – and the document states that claims between the states and their citizens had been “finally settled”.
But the court ruled that the pact did not abolish the right of women to seek compensation from Tokyo, which it said was responsible for their suffering decades ago.
“I am deeply moved by today’s decision,” said Kim Kang-won, the woman’s lawyer. “This is the first conclusion for victims affected by Japanese troops.”
Speaking to journalists after the verdict, he insisted that at the time of the 1965 treaty “the issue of consolation women was not discussed at all”.
The Japanese government denies that it is directly responsible for wartime abuses and claims that the victims were recruited by civilians and that the military brothels were run commercially.
Kim Dae-wol, from the House of Sharing, who cares about the victims, said compensation was not a big issue for them.
“Rather, they want the Japanese government to inform its citizens about the atrocities it has committed,” he said.
The dispute has stuck despite the treaty, and under Moon’s conservative predecessors Seoul and Tokyo reached an agreement in 2015 aimed at “finally and irrevocably” resolving it with a Japanese apology and the formation of a 1 billion yen fund for survivors.
But Moon’s government declared the agreement wrong and effectively declared it invalid, citing the lack of consent of the victims.
The move led to a bitter diplomatic dispute that spread to affect trade and security ties.
The same court will rule next week in a similar case brought against Tokyo by another 20 women and their families.