The Seoul Central District Court has, on Wednesday, begun hearing in the civil suit filed by 20 women and their relatives, who were coerced into sex slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army, during World War II. Women, chiefly from China, Korea (unified) and Philippines were employed as 'comfort women'-Japanese euphemism for 'prostitutes' in the military brothels. Though the numbers are contested, but thousands of women (20,000 according to Japanese estimates and more than 4,00,000, according to Chinese), served as 'comfort women'
The civil suit, though filed in 2016, was delayed as the Japanese government refused to accept the copies of the complaint, Reuters reported. In the Wednesday hearing, the defendant's side remained empty, as the Japanese refused to participate in the trial, stating its sovereign immunity, that shields the government from lawsuits in other countries.
The women are seeking reparations, worth 200 million Won ($171,000) per victim. Japan has turned down the demand, stating that the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and Korea, has settled all the matters related to compensation. While, South Korea asserts that the 1965 agreement, that established diplomatic relations between the two countries, didn't settle individuals' claims against Japan's war crimes. A 1996 UN Resolution by Commission on Human Rights also recommended Japan to take legal responsibility for the crimes inflicted and provide monetary compensation to the victims.
A truce in the matter was reached in 2015 during the tenure of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye in which Japan agreed to provide $9 million fund, directly to the government of the Republic of Korea, which in turn would distribute it to the individual victims. The deal, criticized for being less than expected and not taking victims into confidence, was scrapped in 2017 by the current President Moon Jae-in.
The hearings in the case comes at a time of fraught relations between the two Asian neighbours. Supreme Court of the Republic of Korea, in its 2018 judgement ruled that a number of Japanese companies must compensate victims [or their descendants] who were forced to labour, when Korea was under Japanese occupation, from 1910-1945. The ruling that didn't get down well with the Japanese administration quickly culminated into a 'trade war' with both the countries putting restrictions on other country's exports and downgrading each other's trade status.