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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on April 23)

All News 06:59 April 23, 2021

Contradictory ruling
Diplomatic efforts needed to resolve sex slavery issue

The issue of Japan's wartime sex slavery has taken a turn for the worse after a local court dismissed a damages suit filed by South Korean victims of the crime against humanity. Regrettably, the dismissal has only created confusion and further complicated the matter, reducing the chances for the victims to heal their wounds and restore their human dignity.

On Wednesday, a judge at the Seoul Central District Court turned down the case brought by 20 plaintiffs, comprised of surviving sex slavery victims and family members of those deceased. The judge cited "sovereign immunity" as the main reason for the rejection. Sovereign immunity refers to a legal doctrine that allows a state to be immune from civil suits filed in foreign courts. It is disappointing to see the case rejected for deliberation based on the immunity principle.

The action contradicted an earlier ruling made by the same court -- but a different judge -- for 12 sex slavery victims. In January, this judge ordered Japan to pay 100 million won (US$91,300) in compensation to each of the plaintiffs. At that time, the judge said sovereign immunity should not be applied to crimes against humanity and war crimes. It is hard to understand why the court reversed the previous stance abruptly. The complete reversal has only opened the old wounds of the victims who were forced into sex slavery for frontline Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.

The judge cited examples of court cases that were dismissed in accordance with sovereign immunity. In Italy and Greece, courts refused to apply the immunity rule to lawsuits claiming compensation for human rights abuse committed by Nazi Germany. Their rulings, however, were rejected by the International Court of Justice which did not allow an exception to the rule. Yet, it is absurd to compare the cases against Germany with the sexual slavery case. The times have changed greatly and there is a growing need to get tougher with heinous war crimes and crimes against humanity such as the sexual enslavement of South Korean women for Japanese troops.

Another problem is the court's position on the controversial 2015 agreement between South Korea and Japan to settle the sex slavery issue. The Moon Jae-in administration has virtually scrapped the bilateral deal, saying that it lacked a sincere apology from Japan and did not reflect the voices of the victims. The Constitutional Court ruled in 2019 that the agreement was "politically" but not legally binding. However, the district court judge made a misleading interpretation that the accord could be a measure to help the victims get compensation for their suffering.

The judge seemed to have put more weight on the international legal norm of sovereign immunity with little regard for the victims' rights to reparations and dignity. However, it makes sense for the judge to stress the importance of diplomatic efforts to resolve the wartime atrocity. The Moon government should make more efforts to find a diplomatic solution. But the court action cannot and should not justify Japan's stance that all reparations claims from its 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea were settled by the 1965 bilateral treaty that normalized relations between the two countries.

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