SEOUL – A South Korean woman who was sexually enslaved by Japan’s World War II military called for the leaders of both countries to settle an impasse over the issue by seeking judgment from the International Court of Justice.
The 92-year-old woman, Lee Yong-soo, said Tuesday she hopes a ruling by the U.N.'s highest court handling disputes would bring closure after she and other survivors campaigned unsuccessfully for 30 years demanding that the Japanese government accept legal responsibility for their slavery.
Reading out a message to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Lee also lamented that the friction between governments over the sexual slavery issue has also hurt relations between civilians and discouraged exchanges and friendship between young people, who she said weren’t being properly educated about wartime history.
Moon’s office had no immediate reaction to Lee’s plea. Choi Young-sam, spokesperson of South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, said the government will “carefully review” Lee’s proposal while hearing more opinions from survivors.
“Our government will continue to closely communicate with ‘comfort women’ victims while trying to resolve the matter,” he said, using a common euphemism for the former sex slaves.
It’s unclear if Seoul would ever consider referring the matter to the U.N. court, where it has never fought any case and when anything less than a lopsided victory might be seen at home as a defeat.
But Lee said it has become clear the issue cannot be resolved through bilateral diplomatic talks or rulings by South Korea’s domestic courts that have been repeatedly rejected by the Japanese government.
“I am not asking for money. (I am asking for Japan’s) full acknowledgment of responsibilities and apology,” said Lee, who sobbed as she read the letter during the news conference in Seoul.
“There’s not much time. My last wish is for the president, our government, to seek a judgment by international law, so that I have something to say when I die and meet other survivors.”
To Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Lee said: “Let’s do this together. Let’s go to international court and settle this issue in a right way once and for all, so that the people of both countries could treat each other likes friends again ... There’s no reason for us to live like enemies.”
Tens of thousands of women across Japanese-occupied Asia and the Pacific were moved to front-line brothels used by the Japanese military.
Bilateral tensions over sexual slavery flared again last month when a South Korean court ruled that the Japanese government must give 100 million won ($90,000) to each of 12 victims who filed lawsuits in 2013 over their wartime sufferings.
Japan insists all wartime compensation issues were settled under a 1965 treaty normalizing relations with South Korea in which Tokyo provided $500 million in economic assistance to Seoul.
Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu blasted last month's court ruling as an “abnormal development absolutely unthinkable under international law and bilateral relations” and accused Seoul of worsening their ties.
The countries had already been struggling to repair relations that sank to the lowest point in decades in 2019 over earlier South Korean rulings calling for Japanese companies to compensate Koreans who were forced to work in factories during the war.
If the issue is referred to the International Court of Justice, South Korea would likely raise whether Japan’s “comfort women” system of military sexual slavery was in violation of international law in force at that time, said Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, an international law expert at Yonsei University who joined Lee at the news conference. Japan on the other hand could raise procedural questions such as whether individual claims would be waived by the 1965 agreement.
While a lawsuit at the U.N. court could only happen if both countries agree to take their dispute there, it would be illogical for Japan to object when it has already accused South Korean court rulings of violating international law, he said.
“The survivors aren’t asking for money from the Japanese government, but instead want an apology and acknowledgment of responsibility over the past action and to provide proper history education (for its public),” Shin said, saying such goals would be unattainable through domestic court rulings.
“No matter what kind of ruling the International Court of Justice produces, it will surely have to judge whether the Japanese comfort women system violated international law and that would be meaningful in itself because it would permanently leave behind the testimonies of Lee and other survivors as evidence,” he said.