Seoul — Wartime sex slaves from South Korea, euphemistically known as "comfort women," won their first legal victory against the Japanese government in a landmark ruling handed down Friday in Seoul. The Seoul Central District Court ordered Japan's government to pay reparations of 100 million won ($91,300) each to the families of 12 women who were forced to work as sex slaves for the Japanese army during Japan's colonization of Korea.
The court called Japan forcing the women — only— to be sex slaves "a crime against humanity." It said the women were forced into the servitude when Japan "illegally occupied" the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945, arguing that the illegality of that occupation means Japan's contemporary sovereign immunity can't shield it from lawsuits.
The case in which the ruling was handed down on Friday opened in April last year. The Japanese government has never been involved, insisting the lawsuit should be dismissed on the grounds that "the state is immune from the jurisdiction of the court of a foreign country."
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said Friday that Japan would not appeal the ruling as doing so would put the country under South Korea's jurisdiction.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said that Japan could not accept the court's ruling, while Kato called it "unacceptable," and urged Seoul to take "appropriate measures" to have it dismissed.
Japan's Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba summoned South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo in Tokyo to lodge an "extremely strong protest." Ambassador Nam said he would strive to prevent the ruling from having an "undesirable impact" on bilateral ties.
Even South Korea's Foreign Ministry said that while it respected the court's judgments, "the government acknowledges the formal agreement of the two governments which was made in December 2015."
That deal included a formal apology from then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and an $8.3 million aid fund set up by Tokyo for the elderly former sex slaves. From Japan's perspective, the agreement drew a line under the decades-long scandal.
The plight of the "comfort women" has been a key point of friction between the two Asian nations for more than half a century.
The victims were mainly Korean, but the Japanese army picked up sex slaves in most countries where it had forces based during World War II. There were even British and Dutch women among them.
"We welcome the historic victory that opened a new horizon," said a victims' advocacy group in Seoul that speaks for the women who filed the lawsuits against Japan.
"Victims have repeatedly testified publicly about the damage and demanded a solution based on a victim-centered approach, but were ignored repeatedly," the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, said in a statement.
The group, noting that only a handful of victims remain alive, urged the Japanese government to quickly fulfil what it said was an obligation to meet its "liability," and to fully investigate the army's actions and teach a more accurate version of history in Japan.
Amnesty International Korea also welcomed the court's ruling on Friday, with director Jihyun Yoon calling it an "important decision" and noting in a statement that it was "the first time a South Korean court has acknowledged the responsibility of the Japanese Government for Japanese military sexual slavery and opened up a path to restore justice for the survivors."
Jihyun called on japan to "follow the court's decision and take immediate steps to provide reparations for the victims of sexual slavery," and to issue a "complete and comprehensive apology to the survivors."