South Korea’s “comfort women” are losing claims against Japan

A South Korean court on Wednesday upheld Japan’s state immunity from dismissing a lawsuit filed by a group of women forced to work in Japanese wartime brothels, contradicting a decision in a separate previous case ordering Tokyo to replace the victims.

The remnants of Japan’s colonial rule of 1910-45 on the Korean Peninsula remain controversial on both sides, with many surviving “comfort women” – a Japanese euphemism for victims of sex abuse – demanding Tokyo’s formal apology and compensation.

Diplomatic tensions flared up in January when another judge at Seoul Central District Court ruled in favor of other women in a separate case and ordered Japan to pay compensation for the first time. The verdict had drawn a reprimand from Tokyo which says that the issue was decided according to the 1965 treaty and the 2015 agreement.

But on Wednesday, a judge at the same court recognized Japan’s right to state immunity from foreign trials, which contradicted the January decision that Japan could not claim immunity for “a crime against humanity.”

“If an exemption from state immunity is recognized, a diplomatic clash would be inevitable during the process of enforcing the decision,” Judge Min Seong-cheol said, dismissing the latest case brought by the 20 “comfort women” and their relatives.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said the latest ruling was “different” from the previous decision but declined to elaborate, citing the need for closer scrutiny.

“This decision in January was clearly against both international law and bilateral agreements, and as such it was extremely regrettable and unacceptable,” he told a briefing.

Lee Yong-soo, a “comfort women” victim and one of the complainants, called the verdict “absurd, nonsense” and said she would seek international litigation in the case.

Justice Min also said that the issue should be resolved through diplomatic consultations, and the 2015 agreement can provide the basis for a solution despite some shortcomings in the negotiations.

According to the deal, Tokyo issued an official apology and gave 1 billion yen ($ 9.3 million) to a fund to help “comfort women” victims, with both sides promising to “irrevocably” end the dispute.