The decision is unprecedented. The Seoul Central District Court (South Korea) on Friday (January 8) sentenced Japan to compensate twelve women who had been enslaved during World War II in imperial army brothels. The Japanese government will have to pay each of the victims or their families 100 million won (74,000 euros), reports the South Korean agency Yonhap.
This is the first civil case presented to justice in South Korea against Tokyo by those who were called in a euphemism “Comfort women”, and who were the sex slaves of the Japanese military.
In its judgment, the court notes that Imperial Japan was responsible for the system of “Comfort women”. “The complainants (…) were subjected to prolonged sexual exploitation”, he says. “It was an illegal act against humanity and the defendant has an obligation to compensate the victims for the mental harm. “
Up to 200,000 women forced into prostitution
Tokyo and Seoul are two key allies of the United States in a region dominated by China and facing the threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
But their relations remain strained because of old disputes inherited from the period when the Korean peninsula was a Japanese colony (1910-1945). And they have escalated further since the rise to power of center-left South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a lawyer involved in human rights issues.
According to the majority of historians, up to 200,000 women – mostly from Korea but also from other Asian countries including China – have been forced into prostitution in Japanese military brothels. Friday’s judgment stems from lawsuits filed eight years ago. Only five of the original twelve complainants are still alive, the rest are represented by their families.
“First verdict of its kind”
Tokyo has always refused to appear, arguing that the dispute had been emptied by the 1965 treaty. This involved the payment of reparations which contributed to the extraordinary rise of South Korea. It further stipulated that all claims between States and their nationals were to be found “Fully and definitively settled”.
But for the Seoul court, this agreement was not about the right of women to claim damages in Japan.
“I am deeply moved by the decision rendered today”Kim Kang-won, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, told reporters. “This is the first verdict of its kind for the victims who suffered because of the Japanese troops. “
Rejecting the argument according to which the litigation would have been emptied in 1965, he recalled that at that time, the tragic question of “Comfort women” was not discussed. It was not until the 1990s that this painful subject really emerged in South Korea, thanks to the rise of feminist movements.
Previous agreement between South Korea and Japan denounced
The Japanese government denies being directly responsible for the sexual violence, insisting that the victims were recruited by civilians and that the military brothels were operated commercially.
Kim Dae-wol, from the “House of sharing”, an organization that supports victims, says that what motivates them is not compensation. “What they want is for the Japanese government to inform its citizens of the atrocities it has committed”, she explains.
In 2015, South Korea and Japan reached an agreement “Definitive and irreversible” under which Japan offered its “Sincere apologies” and paid a billion yen (7 million euros) in compensation to a foundation to help the few “Comfort women” South Korean women still alive.
But this agreement, concluded by the conservative government of the since-dismissed ex-president Park Geun-Hye, had been criticized by part of South Korean opinion, in particular because of the Japanese refusal to assume full legal responsibility. And once in power, Mr. Moon denounced the agreement, regretting that the victims were not associated with its negotiation. The subject had led to a clear deterioration in bilateral relations, with consequences for trade and regional security.
The Seoul Central District Court is due next week to render its decision on another, similar case involving some 20 plaintiffs.