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Japan-South Korea rift

Comfort women ruling frays South Korea-Japan ties ahead of Biden era

US president-elect's 'united front of allies' faces challenge from the get-go

A statue symbolizing wartime "comfort women" near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul: The countries still face tensions over the issue despite a 2015 agreement designed to "finally and irreversibly" put it to rest.   © AP

SEOUL/TOKYO -- Relations between Japan and South Korea have plumbed new lows after a South Korean court ordered Tokyo to pay reparations to former wartime "comfort women," further eroding trust between the two countries leading into U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.

South Korea's major newspapers carried the ruling as their top story on Saturday, with the progressive Hankyoreh calling the decision "historic." Conservative outlets including Dong-a Ilbo noted the potential for relations to erode further.

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi called the situation an "unimaginable development under international law and in bilateral relations" in a teleconference with reporters, cautioning that the situation is at risk of worsening rapidly.

On Friday, the Seoul Central District Court ruled that the Japanese government must pay 100 million won ($91,400) to each of the 12 plaintiffs, including some who have died.

"The ruling is completely unacceptable," Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said following the decision. "I strongly urge the South Korean government to correct this violation of international law."

South Korean courts have previously ordered Japanese corporations to pay reparations tied to World War II. But the new ruling could produce much more dramatic diplomatic consequences, like the seizure of Japanese government assets, and essentially kill a 1965 treaty that has been a key building block for the countries' postwar ties.

The Japanese government's stance is that all claims to wartime reparations were settled under the bilateral treaty signed as part of the countries' bid to normalize relations. Japan provided $500 million in grants and loans as part of this deal.

Japan's government does not plan to appeal the decision, since doing so would essentially be an acknowledgment of the South Korean courts' jurisdiction over the case. Tokyo could tap diplomatic options, like recalling its ambassador to South Korea, but will wait on Seoul's response for now.

Still, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is likely to keep his distance from the comfort women case. He has previously said that he values judicial independence, and also did not actively intervene when South Korean courts ordered Japanese corporations to compensate those forced to work for them during World War II. Courts have since begun the process of selling seized assets from Japan's Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Anti-Japan protests on Liberation Day in Seoul on Aug. 15, 2019: Compensation relating to South Korean wartime labor remains a flash point with Japan as well.   © Reuters

South Korean Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-pyo, who was summoned to Japan's Foreign Ministry over the ruling, said both sides need to "exercise restraint to reach a resolution."

For Biden, the latest developments come as he seeks "to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China's abusive behaviors," as he wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs last year. Biden introduced Antony Blinken as his pick for secretary of state in late November, highlighting the longtime confidant and adviser's role in "strengthening America's alliance and positions" in the Asia-Pacific.

Japan maintains a sovereign state cannot be sued in a foreign court without its consent under international law, and did not attend the proceedings for the comfort women case. But the Seoul court ruled Friday that sovereign immunity does not apply in this particular case, as the experience suffered by the women counted as an organized and extensive crime against humanity.

The ruling is based on the concept of peremptory norms -- a principle in international law that the ban on certain crimes like slavery and genocide supersedes other norms like sovereign immunity.

For example, in 2004, Italy's supreme court ruled in favor of an Italian who was seeking reparations from Germany for being forced to work for the Nazis during World War II. It said the case represented a violation of human rights and therefore was not subject to sovereign immunity.

But there is no consensus on the exact limits to peremptory norms. The International Court of Justice rejected the Italian ruling in 2012, on grounds that customary law grants sovereign immunity in similar cases.

However, Doshisha University professor Shigeki Sakamoto said: "The Seoul court's ruling goes against the ICJ decision. It also goes against the 2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea intended to 'finally and irreversibly' settle the [comfort women] issue, and will further impact bilateral relations. It's a quite political ruling that will cause further difficult issues."

The Friday ruling on comfort women also makes it possible for Japanese government assets to be seized. Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they could not answer right now whether they would go this route, but that they were open to studying the option. The Japanese government maintains that its assets cannot be seized under international law.

There is speculation that the latest ruling could encourage more South Koreans -- including former wartime laborers and the 68,000 former military personnel recognized by Seoul -- to sue the Japanese government directly.

"The 1965 treaty has collapsed, at least in South Korea," said Sungkonghoe University professor Yang Kee-ho. "We cannot resolve this issue with stopgap measures. The South Korean government needs to take the latest ruling into consideration and earnestly tackle measures to assist victims of historical issues, like comfort women, wartime laborers and former military personnel."

"Both governments should have worked toward a solution before the ruling was made," Yang said.

These developments are only expected to hurt bilateral ties further, and undermine past efforts by Japan and South Korea to overcome their differences.

For instance, Japan distributed so-called atonement money to 61 South Koreans through its Asian Women's Fund, established in 1995. It also provided 1 billion yen ($9.6 million) to a support group for former comfort women under its 2015 deal with South Korea, which was later distributed to 35 of the 47 former comfort women alive at the time of the agreement.

Additional reporting by Sotaro Suzuki in Seoul

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