A South Korean court on Thursday (November 23) ordered Japan to compensate sixteen women who were victims of sexual slavery during World War II, overturning a lower court decision that dismissed them two years earlier.

In 2021, this first civil case was presented to justice in South Korea against Tokyo by those euphemistically called “comfort women”, people reduced to slavery in the brothels of the imperial army during the global conflict. A court in the central district of Seoul then highlighted Tokyo’s “sovereign immunity” to dismiss these women on April 21, 2021, further considering that accepting the victims’ requests could cause a diplomatic incident.

But the Seoul High Court ruled Thursday that it was “reasonable to say that sovereign immunity should not be respected (…) in cases of illegal conduct,” according to a court document consulted by Agence France-Presse. She ordered that approximately 200 million won (around 141,000 euros) be paid to each of the plaintiffs.

The court said the victims had been “forcibly kidnapped or lured into sexual slavery” and ruled that as a result they had suffered “damage” and “could not lead normal lives after the war.” .

Lee Young-soo, one of the 16 plaintiffs, now 95, raised her arms in joy as she left the court, telling reporters: “I am very grateful…. I thank the victims who died.”

Rification between South Korea and Japan

According to historians, up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea, but also from other parts of Asia including China, were forced to become sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

This question has long weighed on bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo, which colonized the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945. But this decision comes at a time when the conservative South Korean government of President Yoon Suk Yeol seeks to bury this hatchet historic and strengthen ties with Tokyo so that the two countries can jointly face a North Korea whose military threats are intensifying.

The Japanese government denies direct responsibility for wartime abuses, saying victims were recruited by civilians and military brothels were commercially exploited. Tokyo has also always refused to appear before the South Korean courts, maintaining that the dispute had been settled by the 1965 treaty which involved the payment of reparations.