Reopening wounds

Just three days before the top leaders from Japan, South Korea and China were to gather in the South Korean city of Busan to discuss resuming their leaders’ summit as part of a resumption of the annual trilateral summit that began in 2008 but remained suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic since 2019

Reopening wounds

Representative images

Just three days before the top leaders from Japan, South Korea and China were to gather in the South Korean city of Busan to discuss resuming their leaders’ summit as part of a resumption of the annual trilateral summit that began in 2008 but remained suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic since 2019, a Seoul court reopened wounds in bilateral ties by ordering Japan to financially compensate Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during the colonial period.

As expected, Japan called the ruling “absolutely unacceptable”, arguing that it violated international law and bilateral agreements. Ties between the three Northeast Asian countries have remained frosty during much of the post-World War II years. Though the three nations are close economic and cultural partners, they continue to suffer from the shadow of history. More recently, the US-China rivalry and North Korea’s nuclear programme have added a new dimension to the troubled relationship. The trilateral leaders’ summit was planned to address the past issue of wartime atrocities by the Japanese and the new emerging challenges.

In September 2023, senior officials of the three nations had agreed to restart the trilateral summit “at the earliest convenient time.” South Korea and Japan are major US allies in the region and they together host about 80,000 American troops on their soils. Their recent push to bolster a trilateral Seoul-Tokyo-Washington security partnership triggered rebukes from Beijing, which is extremely sensitive to any moves it sees as trying to hold China back. Ties between Seoul and Tokyo soured badly in recent years due to issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.


But bilateral relations improved significantly in recent times as South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol pushed to move beyond historical disputes and bolster cooperation to better deal with North Korea’s nuclear threats and other issues. The Seoul High Court ruling now threatens to nullify all the gains secured by Yoon. Even ties between Japan and China are not free from trouble. Both have tussled for long over Japanese War time atrocities.

They have issues over the Senkaku Island chain in East China Sea, which are claimed by both. More recently, the two nations became embroiled in a trade dispute after China banned seafood imports from Japan to protest the discharge of treated radioactive wastewater from its tsunami-hit nuclear power plant in Fukushima. By reopening the wound before it was healed, the Seoul High Court on 23 November overturned a Seoul Central District Court order of January 2022. It obligated the Japanese government to pay compensation to 16 plaintiffs, including former “comfort women” of the Imperial Japanese Army. In the lawsuit, the lower court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims, ruling that Japan cannot be subject to the jurisdiction of South Korea based on the principle of “sovereign immunity” under international law.

Japan ignored that order. But the appeals court reversed the lower court’s decision and ordered the Japanese government to compensate one former comfort woman and bereaved family members of other wartime comfort women. The court said the amount of compensation should be 200 million won (about 23 million yen or $154,000) to each comfort woman.

There were 16 plaintiffs in total. The decision overturned a lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit over “sovereign immunity,” which under international law means a government cannot face trial in an overseas court of law. The court ruling however will likely be ignored by Japan. Observers hope it will not strain bilateral relations, largely because ties between the two countries have greatly improved since Yoon Suk-yeol became President of South Korea in 2022. In a sharp reaction, Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa said the court ruling “was extremely regrettable” for not recognising sovereign immunity.

It has transpired that the Japanese government will not appeal for the same reason. Based on this stance, the Japanese government has not participated in any trial in South Korea regarding compensation for wartime comfort women. Such court rulings in the past have sparked heated exchanges between the two governments. It goes to the credit of President Yoon that his administration tried to ease the friction through a foundation established in March 2023.

Now the South Korean Supreme Court has ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to Korean wartime labourers, which is to be administered by the foundation. Yoon’s move led to the increase in exchanges between the two nations over a wide range of areas, such as national security, business and culture.

Though it is expected that the High Court ruling is unlikely to be a barrier to this warmth in relationship between the two countries, Yoon could face a public backlash if his political opponents step up their criticism that the government is letting Japan off the hook over wartime issues. Lee Yong-su, 94, the only surviving former comfort woman among the plaintiffs, has demanded that Japan should express a heartfelt apology and provide legal compensation to the plaintiffs.

Japan has held to its fundamental stance that all wartime compensation issues had been settled under a 1965 treaty on Basic Relations, when diplomatic relations were normalised between the two nations. Those agreements normalised relations and provided Seoul with huge sums following South Korea’s independence from Tokyo in 1945. The timing of the latest court ruling was unfortunate as the foreign ministers of Japan, South Korea and China were to meet in Busan on 25-26 November to prepare for the summit meeting of their top leaders. While Japan is not expected to change its stance, it needs to be watchful that China should not take advantage of any signs of cracks in Japan-South Korea relations. If Japan-South Korea ties nosedive on this issue, it would suit Beijing’s ambition to be the preeminent power in the region.

Though Yoon may be wellmeaning in his desire to mend ties with Japan, his administration is unlikely to interfere with the court activities, which are independent. There is a risk that irrespective of whether Japan heeds the court ruling or not, this itself negatively impacts on the rapprochement between the two. In a worst-case scenario, it could cause a setback to moves towards rebuilding trust and shall have damaging implications for trade, politics, and security.

(The writer is former fellow at prime Minister Memorial Museum and Library)