Seoul court case starts over Tokyo's wartime sex slavery

Former "comfort woman" Gil Won-ok arrives at a press conference near the Seoul Central District Court in Seoul on Nov 13, 2019.

SEOUL (AFP) - Former South Korean wartime sex slaves went to court in Seoul Wednesday (Nov 13) to demand compensation from the Japanese government, in a case that is likely to exacerbate tensions between the neighbours.

Seoul and Tokyo are both major US allies, democracies and market economies faced with an overbearing China and nuclear-armed North Korea, but are locked in a bitter row over historical issues that has spiralled into a fully-fledged trade dispute.

The first hearing in the case took place some three years after the 20 plaintiffs - including victims and their family members - filed their action, demanding compensation of 200 million won (S$230,000) each.

Mainstream historians say up to 200,000 women - mostly from Korea, but also other parts of Asia including China - were forced to become sex slaves, so-called "comfort women", for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Similar cases have previously been mounted in Japan, where courts have ruled against the plaintiffs.

Tokyo insists that all compensation matters were settled by the 1965 treaty that normalised relations between the neighbours and a 2015 deal to "permanently" settle the decades-long dispute with a Japanese apology and a payment of 1 billion yen (S$12 million) to survivors.

Tokyo is boycotting the proceedings at the Seoul Central District Court, claiming sovereign immunity.

"If Japan's conscience is clear, there is no reason why it shouldn't attend," Lee Yong-soo, one of the surviving victims, said before the hearing began.

"Japan should attend these proceedings."

The 2015 agreement sparked anger among some survivors seeking an explicit apology from the Japanese government, leading some to file the civil suit.

"The 1965 treaty and the 2015 deal do not take away each victim's individual right to request compensation," Ryu Kwang-ok, one of the lawyers, told AFP.

Many Koreans remain deeply resentful of Japan's colonial rule over the peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and in recent months a series of South Korean court rulings have ordered Japanese firms to pay for forced labour during World War II.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.