‘Comfort women’ civil suit to start on Nov. 13

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‘Comfort women’ civil suit to start on Nov. 13

A group of victims of the Japanese military’s wartime sexual slavery filed a suit with the Seoul Central District Court in December 2016 seeking damages from the Japanese government.

Three years later, the trial can formally begin, with a date set for Nov. 13.

Following the Korean Supreme Court’s landmark rulings on the forced labor issue last year, any ruling in the wartime sexual slavery case could bring about major repercussions.

The Korean Supreme Court made landmark decisions in October and November last year ordering two Japanese companies to compensate victims of forced labor during World War II.

The top court recognized that the Japanese government failed to acknowledge the illegality of its colonial rule and that the victims’ rights to individual compensation had not expired.

Tokyo protested the rulings, claiming that a 1965 treaty normalizing bilateral relations settled all compensation issues.

Kim Bok-dong, a victim of wartime sexual slavery and a rights activist who died last January, and a group of 20 survivors and family members sued the Japanese government at the end of 2016 for around 100 million won ($84,000) in damages each. The Japanese Foreign Ministry refused to accept the complaint multiple times, leading to a delay in the court proceedings. The complaint and related documents are sent via diplomatic channels and must be delivered to the corresponding Japanese court before a civil lawsuit can begin in the Korean court.

Due to the Japanese government refusing to accept the complaint for two years, the Seoul court turned to service by publication, posting the documents on the Korean Supreme Court website in March.

The Seoul Central District Court announced that the civil suit was to be conducted via service by publication because the Japanese government refused to accept the hard copies of the case documents. It determined in May that the documents had been adequately conveyed to the Japanese government through this method.

Finally, last Thursday, the court set Nov. 13 as the date for pleading. It is very unlikely that a representative of the Japanese government will attend, which could lead to a default judgement.

Separately, the Seoul Central District Court is handling another case of 12 “comfort women” victims, bringing the total damages being demanded to some 4.2 billion won.

The comfort women issue is somewhat more complicated that other compensation issues related to Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910-45. The wartime sexual slavery issue was only brought to widespread attention since the early 1990s after survivors shared their stories publicly, and the Korean government has claimed that their individual rights to compensation were not covered under the 1965 claims agreement as the issue was not discussed during those negotiations. A ruling could also set a precedent as a lawsuit against a foreign government in a Korean court.

While the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Property was adopted in 2004 and provides for state immunity, giving a government protection from being sued in courts of other countries, it has yet to be put into force.

A ruling could serve as a symbolic case if it recognizes that Japan needs to accept legal responsibility for its wartime crimes.

Some analysts warn that the deterioration in bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo following the forced labor ruling needs to be taken into consideration.

A landmark court decision in the sex slave issue came on Aug. 30, 2011, when Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled that the government’s inaction on the comfort women issue was unconstitutional.

In December 2015, Seoul and Tokyo signed an agreement that was supposed to resolve the wartime sexual slavery issue “finally and irreversibly,” which included an apology from Tokyo and a 1 billion yen ($9.2 billion) fund for the victims.

The deal was criticized by victims and civic groups from the start, who complained that it failed to recognize Japan’s legal responsibility for its wartime crimes. Since then, the Moon Jae-in administration has called the agreement “flawed” and also scrapped last November the Tokyo-funded Reconciliation and Healing Foundation created through the deal.

Jin Chang-soo, head of the Japan Research Center at the Sejong Institute think tank in Seoul, said, “At the center of historical issues are apology, repentance and reconciliation, and judicial decisions do not determine some victory between Korea and Japan.”

He added that both sides have been negligent in resolving historical issues diplomatically.

BY LEE YU-JUNG, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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