(ATTN: ADDS photo, more details in paras 3-6, 8-9)
SEOUL, April 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korean victims of wartime sexual slavery lost their second lawsuit against the Japanese government Wednesday, suffering a setback in their efforts to hold Tokyo accountable for war crimes.
The Seoul Central District Court dismissed the case brought by 20 plaintiffs, including surviving victims forced to work in front-line brothels for Japanese soldiers during World War II, citing sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine that allows a state to be immune from a civil suit in foreign courts.
"When we recognize exemptions of sovereign immunity, diplomatic clashes will inevitably ensue," the court said. It also cited a few examples of court cases after World War II that were rejected for deliberations based on sovereign immunity.
It also took note of the 2015 bilateral agreement between Seoul and Tokyo to resolve the dispute. Despite some procedural problems, the agreement was reached after listening to opinions of the victims, euphemistically called "comfort women," and some of them have received money from the foundation set up under the deal, the court said.
The victims and activists have called the agreement inadequate, saying it lacks a sincere apology from Tokyo and left out their voices in the negotiation process.
"Victims suffered tremendously, and the efforts and results by the South Korean governments seem to have been not enough to help them recover from their sufferings," the court said, adding the issue should be resolved through "diplomatic" efforts.
The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in December 2016. But the legal proceedings had been delayed because Tokyo refused to respond.
Lee Yong-soo, one of the plaintiffs, expressed dismay and frustration over the ruling.
Sitting in a wheelchair, the 92-year-old survivor of sexual enslavement urged the government to "take the issue to the International Court of Justice regardless of whether it produces a good or bad outcome."
In January, a court here ordered Japan to make financial reparations of 100 million won (US$91,300) each to the first group of 12 victims, in the first legal victory for South Korean victims of wartime sexual enslavement.
At that time, it rejected Japan's claim that the case should be dropped based on sovereign immunity, and said that the rule should not apply to "systematic crimes against humanity" and war crimes.
Tokyo has maintained that it had no obligation to follow the ruling by a South Korean court that it said had no jurisdiction over Japan.
In South Korea, there are only 15 surviving victims registered with the government, mostly in their 80s and 90s. According to historians, there were around 200,000 victims, mostly from Korea.
Relations between the two neighboring nations have hit their lowest levels in recent years over a series of sensitive issues, from wartime forced labor to Tokyo's recent decision to release wastewater from the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea.
New mayor of Seoul under pressure to avert 'garbage crisis'
Sino-U.S. tensions, tighter China-N.K. ties feared to weaken denuke efforts
Defense cost-sharing deal signals tighter, more stable S. Korea-U.S. alliance
Legislation on compensating virus-hit small biz picks up steam
Anger mounts over deepfake porn targeting Korean female celebs; more than 330,000 sign petition