A district court in South Korea passed a historic order on Friday, January 8, asking Japan to compensate Korean survivors of sexual violence during the Second World War. The order passed by the Seoul Central District Court ordered Japan to pay 12 women who were forced to serve as “comfort women” in military-run brothels a sum of KRW 100 million (approximately USD 91,500) each.
The judgment, in a case initiated in 2016, is the first such order in a South Korean court to recognize the documented mass sexual abuse of Korean women by the invading Japanese military. The court found that during the colonial rule and the Second World War (WWII), the Japanese government “violated international norms by committing intentional, systematic and wide-ranging inhumane criminal acts.”
The judgment has been welcomed by the survivors. Advocate Kim Gang-won, who represented the 12 plaintiffs, hailed the verdict as “monumental” and stated that he was deeply moved. Six of the 12 plaintiffs have died since 2016, when the case was first filed, while the rest are extremely old and above the age of 90.
The court has also waived sovereign immunity to Japan, which opens the possibility of directives to seize Japanese government’s property in South Korea, if they do not comply. Japan, which had refused to send any representatives to the hearings, has asserted that they do not recognize the authority of Korean courts on the matter and refused to appeal against it.
The judgment will be significant to another similar lawsuit filed by the families of 20 survivors, demanding a compensation of a total of KRW 3 billion (more than USD 2.7 million), the ruling for which is scheduled on January 13. In the whole of South Korea, only 16 officially known survivors of the crimes are alive today.
The Korean peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945. During WWII, Japan had expanded its colonial empire into northeastern and coastal China and large parts of southeast Asia. In Korea alone, several historians have argued, the number of “comfort women” was as high as 200,000. The total number of women forced into prostitution by Japan came up to nearly half a million, including from other places like China and the Philippines.
Since 1992, Korean women who survived sexual violence at the hands of Japan have been calling for reparations and justice, with their weekly Wednesday Protests outside the Japanese diplomatic missions in South Korea. The movement spread across the Asia-Pacific, triggered by the tendency of the former conservative government of Shinzo Abe to downplay and even at times deny Japan’s historical crimes on its Asian colonies. The government of Yoshihide Suga has continued this policy after taking over from Abe.
The growth of the movement led to the memorial being erected in different nations, including the Statue of Peace in Seoul, outside Japanese embassies, despite strong opposition from Japan. In 2017, after the government of president Moon Jae-in took over, South Korea withdrew from its previous treaties with Japan on war reparations, alleging that it fell short of justice to victims and survivors of the crimes.