SEOUL -- A Seoul court on Wednesday dismissed a compensation lawsuit filed by 20 former South Korean "comfort women" against the Japanese government -- a surprise ruling as the same court ruled in favor of 12 plaintiffs in a similar case in January.
The Seoul Central District Court said that the government of Japan is not liable because it has state immunity that shields a nation from being sued in another country.
The 20 plaintiffs had demanded that Tokyo pay them a combined 3 billion won ($2.7 million) for their suffering during World War II. So-called comfort women serviced the Japanese military in wartime brothels.
"If [the court] accepts an exception in state immunity, a diplomatic clash is inevitable in the process of the ruling and enforcing it," the court said after the ruling. "Resolution of the comfort women issue should be made through diplomatic discussions."
Lee Yong-soo, a plaintiff, expressed disappointment with the ruling. "It is very absurd. I have nothing to say apart from taking this case to the International Court of Justice," Lee said.
The ruling could be a positive step toward healing ties between the two countries, which have been dogged for decades by territorial issues, and historical disputes stemming from Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula (1910-1945).
The verdict was unexpected as the same court ruled that Japan must pay 100 million won each to 12 comfort women in January, saying the country's illegal actions are not subject to state immunity guaranteed by international law.
The court also said that a diplomatic agreement signed by South Korea and Japan over comfort women in 2015 is still valid despite having some problems.
Seoul and Tokyo agreed to set up a foundation to resolve the issue in 2015. Japan paid 1 billion yen ($9.3 million) for the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, but it was dissolved in 2018 as the government of President Moon Jae-in said it was problematic.
South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong said Wednesday that his government has suggested realistic solutions to Japan under the 2015 agreement, but Tokyo declined them.
"We suggested many alternatives to resolve comfort women issue realistically, but high-ranking Japanese officials told us to bring better options," Chung said in a meeting with journalists. "If they stick to their own arguments, it's maybe they don't want talks."
Chung did not elaborate what kinds of solutions he has offered.
Speaking after the ruling, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters in Tokyo that his government would scrutinize the ruling.
In reference to the January ruling, Kato said: "We will continue to urge South Korea to take appropriate measures to immediately correct the situation of violation of international law."
Analysts say that it is time for South Korea and Japan to revisit the 2015 agreement and develop the deal into a better one.
"It's best that the two countries follow the agreement after adjustments," said Park Yu-ha, a professor of Japanese literature in Sejong University. "Japan also should improve some parts as it left everything to South Korea after paying compensation."
In a separate statement, the South Korean Foreign Ministry criticized Japanese leaders for sending offerings and paying visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where Class A war criminals are enshrined along with other war dead.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga sent an offering to the shrine, and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid a visit there.
"The government urges Japan's leaders to face history and take actions to show their humble attitude to the past," the ministry said. "Japan should know that this is the basic for the development of the Republic of Korea-Japan relations."