Lawsuit over Former Comfort Women: Unjust Ruling Ignores International Law

A South Korean court has issued a ruling that could shake the foundation of Japan-South Korea relations. The decision violates the principle of “sovereign immunity,” in which one sovereign state cannot be subject to the jurisdiction of another. The judgment is absolutely unacceptable.

The Seoul High Court overturned a lower court trial ruling and ordered that the Japanese government pay compensation to 16 plaintiffs, a group of former South Korean comfort women and their relatives. Initially, a district court had rejected the plaintiffs’ claims based on the international principle of sovereign immunity.

The Japanese government has not participated in the trial, arguing that the lawsuit should be dismissed based on the principle of sovereign immunity. Japan lost a similar lawsuit in 2021; that case was finalized without appeal.

This time, the high court ruled that the mobilization of comfort women was an illegal act by the Japanese government of the time and refused to grant sovereign immunity. The court cited a case in which the Ukraine Supreme Court denied Russia’s sovereign immunity, ruling that Kyiv could claim damages for harm inflicted upon Ukrainian citizens by Moscow.

While the latest ruling may be in line with the theory that sovereign immunity does not apply to gross violations of human rights, it is unreasonable to equate Japan’s colonial rule — during a period when major powers were vying for supremacy — with Russia’s aggression, which traduces international law.

Firstly, claims between Japan and South Korea have already been legally settled under the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea. The two governments confirmed in their 2015 agreement that the comfort women issue had been “resolved finally and irreversibly.”

It has never been demonstrated that there was systematic taking away of comfort women by the former Japanese military. It is entirely natural for the Japanese government to protest the Seoul High Court decision, pointing out that it is “clearly contrary to international law and agreements between the two countries, and therefore extremely regrettable.”

If the ruling becomes an accepted fact, it could spread the false perception that Japan is a country that disrespects women’s rights. It is essential for the Japanese government to convey the legitimacy of its claims to the world.

It has long been pointed out that South Korean courts tend to cater to anti-Japanese sentiment. There are countless examples of unjust court decisions concerning former comfort women and former wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula that have damaged relations between Tokyo and Seoul.

In terms of placing importance on Japan-South Korea relations, the administration of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has not fixated on historical issues and has striven to improve bilateral ties, which deteriorated severely during the tenure of former President Moon Jae-in. The high court’s ruling has poured cold water on such efforts.

The Yoon administration has distanced itself from the ruling and expressed its intention to respect the 2015 agreement on comfort women issue. With North Korea advancing its nuclear and missile development programs and China strengthening its hegemonic moves, it is becoming increasingly important for Japan and South Korea to work together. Efforts aimed at improving relations must continue.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 25, 2023)