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South Korean court orders Japan to compensate ‘comfort women’

A statue of a "comfort woman" is displayed in central Seoul. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

A South Korean court ordered Japan to compensate women forced to work in Japan’s military brothels during World War II, a landmark decision likely to inflame tension between the U.S. allies just before Joe Biden takes office.

The Seoul District Court on Friday made what is thought to be first decision ordering Japan to compensate what are euphemistically known as “comfort women,” in a case brought on behalf of 12 of the women. It ordered the Japanese government to pay 100 million won ($91,000) each to surviving woman and family members of those who died.

“The plaintiffs seem to have suffered extreme mental and physical pain,” the court said in its decision. The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government in 2013, demanding 100 million won ($92,500) each for compensation.

The court said Japan has refused to accept documents related to the matter and it rejected claims that Tokyo can invoke state immunity to the lawsuit.

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 $9.3 million for a compensation fund.

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, widening the rift between the two U.S. military allies crucial to check China’s growing global clout and North Korea’s atomic ambitions.

Tensions further flared 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 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.

The U.S. was forced to step in when South Korea threatened in 2019 to withdraw from a joint intelligence-sharing agreement, with Moon backing down at the last minute after facing pressure from Washington.

Japan has said all claims were “settled completely and finally” under a 1965 treaty, which established diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Japan paid the equivalent of $300 million — $2.5 billion in today’s money — and extended $200 million in low-interest loans. The then-struggling South Korea invested the money in industries that eventually helped turn it into an economic powerhouse.

Historians say anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women — many of them Korean — were forced into service in Japan’s military brothels.

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© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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