A South Korean court on Friday ordered the Japanese government to pay compensation to 12 World War II sex slaves or their heirs, in an unprecedented ruling likely to infuriate Tokyo, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency is reporting.
In the first ever civilian legal case of its kind, the Seoul Central District Court ruled that Japan should pay the victims 100 million won (US$91,000, RM370,000) each.
The plight of South Korea’s “comfort women” has been a thorny issue between Seoul and Tokyo for decades.
Both are major US allies, democracies and market economies, faced with their unpredictable neighbours China and North Korea.
But Japan’s early-20th century colonial rule over Korea remains bitterly resented on the peninsula, and relations have plunged to their worst in years under South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.
The Japanese government reacted angrily in July, to a statue in South Korea that appeared to depict Japan’s then-PM Shinzo Abe kneeling and bowing to a “comfort woman”.
Historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also other parts of Asia, were forced to work in Japan’s military brothels during World War II. Only a few of them have ever told of the abuse they endured at the hands of Japanese forces.
Friday’s ruling came in a legal process that began eight years ago. Several of the original plaintiffs have since died and been replaced by family members, reports Reuters.
Tokyo boycotted the proceedings and insists all compensation issues stemming from its colonial rule were settled in a 1965 treaty and agreement which normalised diplomatic relations between the neighbours.
Under that agreement, Japan paid South Korea financial reparations – which Seoul used to contribute to its transformation into an economic powerhouse – and the document said claims between the states and their nationals had been “settled completely and finally”.
The Japanese government denies it is directly responsible for the wartime abuses, insisting that the victims were recruited by civilians and that the military brothels were commercially operated.
The dispute festered despite the treaty, and Seoul and Tokyo reached a deal in 2015 aimed at “finally and irreversibly” resolving it with a Japanese apology and the formation of a ¥1 billion fund for survivors.
But Moon’s government declared the agreement reached under his predecessor faulty and effectively nullified it, citing the lack of victims’ consent.
The move led to a bitter diplomatic dispute that affected trade and security ties that were further strained last year when Japan imposed restrictions on exports of key high-tech materials to South Korea following a ruling by South Korea’s top court ordering Japanese firms to pay compensation to Koreans forced to work for them during the war.
The same court is due to rule next week on a similar case brought against Tokyo by another 20 women and their families.