By respecting international law, Seoul court makes proper ruling on so-called comfort women’s claims

A South Korean court has made a sensible ruling on former so-called comfort women based on international law. The hope is that this ruling will serve as an opportunity for the administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to return to honoring the agreement his country reached with Japan and take action to mend bilateral relations.

In a lawsuit filed by former comfort women in South Korea and their relatives seeking compensation from the Japanese government, the Seoul Central District Court handed down a decision to reject their claims. The court cited the principle of sovereign immunity, a concept under customary international law in which a sovereign state cannot be sued in a court of another sovereign state.

Citing past decisions made by the International Court of Justice, among other precedents, the ruling said that not applying the principle to cases involving former comfort women “could lead to future uncertainty over sovereign immunity.” It can be described as proper, in line with Japan’s position.

Sovereign immunity has been widely accepted as a principle to support equal relations among sovereign states. In a similar case, however, the ruling handed down by the same court in January treated the so-called comfort women system as an exception to customary international law, meaning sovereign immunity did not apply, thus ordering the Japanese government to pay compensation.

In that same month, Moon said he was “confused” by the ruling. The plaintiffs in the January case had asked the court to allow the seizure of Japanese government assets on the ground that the losing side should pay the costs of the lawsuit, but the court later denied the request, saying that it might violate international law.

Taking this into account with the latest ruling, there is the possibility the South Korean judiciary considered the effect on politics and diplomacy.

The Japanese government, considering that both lawsuits should have been rejected, did not participate in either trial. The January ruling was finalized as the Japanese government did not appeal. For the latest ruling, it is unclear what decision a higher court would hand down if the plaintiffs appeal.

What Moon needs to do is to bring the comfort women issue to an end without being swayed by court decisions that can at times be inconsistent.

The issue of claims between Japan and South Korea has been legally settled under the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation. The South Korean government holds responsibility to provide compensation to former comfort women if necessary.

Tokyo and Seoul should stand on the basis of the 2015 agreement between the two countries, in which they confirmed the comfort women issue had been “resolved finally and irreversibly.” Based on this agreement, the Japanese government has provided ¥1 billion to a South Korean foundation that supports former comfort women as its response to a universal human rights issue related to women.

Many former comfort women have received financial support from the foundation. The latest ruling also recognized the 2015 agreement as “a Japanese government relief measure.” These are facts that should not be ignored.

The Moon administration has triggered confusion, holding to an unfavorable stance regarding the 2015 agreement that its predecessor reached with Japan as well as dissolving the foundation. The president should appreciate the significance of the agreement, which the two countries concluded through desperate diplomatic efforts, and seek understanding from the plaintiffs and organizations that provide assistance to former comfort women.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on April 22, 2021.