South Korea court upholds Japan 'comfort women' deal

2015 bilateral agreement a 'political deal' that does not affect victims' legal rights, court says

Former comfort woman Lee Ok-sun crying at a shelter in Gwangju, during a TV broadcast of the Constitutional Court's ruling yesterday.
Former comfort woman Lee Ok-sun crying at a shelter in Gwangju, during a TV broadcast of the Constitutional Court's ruling yesterday.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL • South Korea's Constitutional Court yesterday rejected a petition seeking the repeal of a 2015 deal with Japan settling a bitter dispute over Korean women enslaved for sex by the Japanese military during World War II.

In a unanimous decision, the nine-judge panel ruled that the deal was a non-binding political agreement that did not affect the legal rights of the victims, such as their ability to seek official compensation from Japan.

It said the agreement did not receive parliamentary approval or Cabinet council deliberations in either country, necessary steps to make it a treaty.

The court also said the deal was vague on the detailed steps required of each country and the consequences they would face if they failed to implement them.

"It cannot be said that the rights of the victims of the Japanese military were infringed upon by this agreement," Constitutional Court president Yoo Nam-seok said in the court's ruling.

The ruling is final and cannot be appealed, court officials said.

The ruling is expected to have little impact on the 2015 agreement as it has been effectively abandoned by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has called it seriously flawed and inadequate to resolve the issue that has been for many years a source of rancour between the Asian neighbours.

Comfort women is a euphemism for the thousands of girls and women, most of them Korean, forced to work in Japan's brothels before and during World War II, when Japan occupied Korea.

The 2015 agreement, reached by Mr Moon's conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was welcomed by the United States at the time as an important step towards reconciliation.

But surviving comfort women saw it as unjust, and the constitutional petition was brought by 29 of them and 12 of their families.

They argued that it violated their rights as they were not consulted when the governments agreed to close the matter as "irreversibly resolved" with an apology by Japan and a 1 billion yen (S$12.4 million) fund to compensate the women.


"This could have been an opportunity to address their pain," said Mr Rhee Dong-joon, a lawyer representing the women.

"It is disappointing that the Constitutional Court failed to bring closure to their hurting."

The ruling comes after Mr Moon and Mr Abe held talks for the first time in 15 months on Monday and stressed the need to improve ties, after the worst period of tension between the countries in decades when South Korean anger over Japan's wartime behaviour spilled into the trade arena.

Last week, Japan partially eased curbs put in place in July on the export of a key high-tech material to South Korea.

The trade restrictions were followed by the two countries removing each other from their lists of favoured trade partners.

No one knows how many Koreans were forced to work in Japan's military brothels. South Korean activists say there may have been as many as 200,000 Korean victims, only a few of whom have ever told of the abuse they endured at the hands of Japanese forces.

Since the early 1990s, nearly 250 women have come forward to talk about their experiences. Only 20 of them survive.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2019, with the headline 'South Korea court upholds Japan 'comfort women' deal'. Subscribe