+ A

First hearing in ‘comfort women’ damages case

Nov 14,2019
The first hearing in a lawsuit by Korean women forced into sexual slavery during World War II took place yesterday — the first civil suit in Korea against Japan by the so-called comfort women.

The 20 plaintiffs are demanding 200 million won ($171,000) each from the Japanese government.

Before the hearing started at the Seoul Central District Court, three survivors held a press conference demanding the Japanese government participate in the trial.

“Japan is a coward. If not, it must come to the court,” said Lee Yong-soo, a 90-year-old survivor. “We are not doing this for money. It’s been 30 years since we demanded an apology and compensation.”

“This lawsuit is the survivors’ last battle, considering their ages,” said an attorney from Lawyers for a Democratic Society, which represents the plaintiffs in the case. “We hope the Korean judiciary will restore their dignity by making a righteous judgment.”

Following the press conference, the survivors and the lawyers headed into the court to attend the hearing. Judge Yu Seok-dong presided.

On Dec. 28, 2016, 11 survivors and nine relatives of six deceased victims of the Japanese military’s sexual slavery filed the suit because they believed a 2015 diplomatic settlement between Seoul and Tokyo failed to force Japan to take legal responsibility for crimes against humanity.

The Japanese government refused to participate in the legal action, stalling the proceedings. During the delay, five of the 11 survivors died.

Over the past three years, the National Court Administration made a series of attempts to deliver a written complaint to the Japanese government, but it refused to receive it, citing the Convention on the Service Abroad of Judicial and Extrajudicial Documents in Civil or Commercial Matters, more commonly known as the Hague Service Convention.

Both Korea and Japan are signatories of the convention. Article 13 says that a state addressed may refuse to receive a document “only if it deems that compliance would infringe its sovereignty or security.”

In March, the court publicized the complaint and related documents. Starting May 9, the complaint was presumed delivered to the Japanese government, allowing the court to start the trial.

It was assumed the Japanese government would not be represented at Wednesday’s hearing. Quoting informed sources, the Japan Times reported Tuesday that Tokyo had no plan to send a representative.

Legal experts said the principle of sovereign immunity will be the most contentious point in the case. According to that principle, a sovereign state cannot be sued before the courts of another sovereign state without its consent. In other words, a sovereign state is exempt from the jurisdiction of foreign courts.

The so-called comfort women victims have long argued that the Japanese government’s criminal activities were committed on Korean soil and the gravity of the crimes was too heavy to allow its immunity.

In a press release, the Korean office of Amnesty International said it submitted a legal opinion to the Seoul Central District Court on Tuesday ahead of the hearing. In the statement, the human rights advocacy group said sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II was one of the largest human trafficking cases in the 20th century and a clear violation of international laws.

The group said that sexual crimes committed by the Japanese military involved group rapes, forced abortions, body mutilation and killings. The crimes caused the suicides of many victims, it said.

The group also defended the legitimacy of the lawsuit. Because the survivors are victims of crimes against humanity and war crimes against the peremptory norms of international laws, it said, they are entitled to seek claims in a Korean court against the Japanese government.

The lawsuit is not the first attempt by survivors to seek compensation from Japan. In August 2013, 12 victims submitted a petition for mediation to the Seoul Central District Court to receive compensation from the Japanese government.

For the next two years, the court made several attempts to start a mediation process, but Tokyo refused to respond.

The victims, then, asked the court to start a formal trial, and the court accepted their request in January. The trial has not started.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]