SEOUL — A judge in South Korea ruled on Wednesday that Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II cannot seek compensation from the Japanese government in a South Korean court, a decision that angered survivors and contradicted an earlier ruling in January.
In the earlier verdict, the presiding judge ordered the Japanese government to pay 100 million won ($89,400) each to 12 former Korean sex slaves, known as “comfort women.”
The two different decisions by two different judges in the Seoul Central District Court complicated the survivors’ decades-long effort to hold the Japanese government legally accountable for wartime sexual slavery. The two rulings also showed that the South Korean judiciary was divided over Japan’s claim that international law shielded it from lawsuits in foreign courts.
In January, the South Korean judge ruled that the Japanese government should be subject to Korean jurisdiction because the experience of Korean sex slaves involved “anti-humanity acts systematically planned and perpetrated by the Japanese Empire.” For such acts, Japan cannot claim exemption from a lawsuit in South Korea based on state sovereignty, he said.
2015 agreement, which South Korea and Japan called “final and irreversible,” permanently settled the long-running dispute over comfort women. Previously, in a 1993 statement, Japan issued a formal apology for the practice.
On Wednesday, a different South Korean judge, Min Seong-cheol, sided with Japan and threw out the lawsuit filed by a separate group of former sex slaves. If courts start making exceptions to the principle of national sovereignty, “diplomatic clashes become inevitable,” the judge said in his ruling. Mr. Min also cited the 2015 agreement, under which Japan acknowledged responsibility for its actions, apologized anew to the women and set up an $8.3 million fund to help provide old-age care for survivors.
Some of the surviving women have accepted payments from the 2015 fund. Others rejected the agreement, saying that it failed to specify Japan’s “legal” responsibility or to provide official reparations. The lawsuit thrown out on Wednesday was filed in 2016 by 20 plaintiffs, including 11 former sex slaves. Only four of the 11 are still alive, and all of them are in their 80s or 90s.
Neither the ruling in January nor the one on Wednesday is the final say on the matter. The plaintiffs in the second lawsuit said they would seek the opinion of higher courts by appealing Wednesday’s decision.