A South Korean court has dismissed a lawsuit against Japan to compensate women forced to work in its second World War-era brothels.
The ruling represents a boost for Tokyo after a series of Korean court rulings awarding damages sent relations plummeting between the two countries.
The Seoul Central District Court ruled on Wednesday that Japan had sovereign immunity in the case brought on behalf of 21 plaintiffs, including 11 women forced to work in the brothels, and, as a foreign state, was not liable to pay compensation in a South Korean civil suit.
The court said in its decision that diplomatic friction with Japan would be "inevitable" if the principle of state immunity is denied. It added a 2015 bilateral agreement between South Korea and Japan that set up a compensation fund for the victims, euphemistically called "comfort women", was still in effect.
The ruling came after the same Seoul court, but with a different panel of judges and plaintiffs, in January reached a landmark decision that ordered the Japanese government to pay 100 million won (€74,000) each in the case brought on behalf of 12 other women.
That decision, which came just before Joe Biden took office in the United States, widened the rift between the two US military allies that are seen as crucial to check China's growing global clout and North Korea's atomic ambitions. Once in the White House, Mr Biden sent his top envoys on their debut trip abroad in their posts to Japan and South Korea to ease tensions in the two countries that host the bulk of the US military presence in Asia.
Japan has said the lawsuits violated international law and should be dismissed. Tokyo also said all claims were “settled completely and finally” under a 1965 agreement, which accompanied the treaty establishing diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Japan’s top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato refrained from commenting on the Wednesday decision as Tokyo examines the ruling. He added in a news briefing, “The January ruling violated international law and the agreement between Japan and South Korea.”
South Korea’s government has not yet issued a statement but the current government has said it believes the individual suffering of many victims was not covered by the treaty.
In 2015 Japan and South Korea announced a "final and irreversible" agreement that came with a personal apology to the women from former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe as well as about €7.7 million for a compensation fund.
But some of the women protested, arguing the deal was made without consultations and violated their constitutional rights. South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who took office in 2017, has effectively shut down the fund made by his predecessor.
Tensions further flared between the neighbours after a series of South Korean court decisions from late 2018 demanding Japan pay compensation to Koreans conscripted to work at Japanese factories and mines during the country’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.
The US was forced to step in when South Korea threatened in 2019 to withdraw from a joint intelligence-sharing agreement, with Mr Moon backing down at the last minute after facing pressure from Washington.
Historians say anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women – many of them Korean – were forced into service in Japan’s military brothels. – Bloomberg