SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A South Korean court on Friday ordered Japan to financially compensate 12 South Korean women forced to work as sex slaves for Japanese troops during World War II, a landmark ruling that's set to rekindle animosities between the Asian neighbors.
Japan immediately protested the ruling, maintaining that all wartime compensation issues were resolved under a 1965 treaty that restored their diplomatic ties.
The Seoul Central District Court ruled the Japanese government must give 100 million won ($91,360) each to the 12 aging women who filed the lawsuits in 2013 for their wartime sexual slavery.
The court said Japan's mobilization of these women as sexual slaves was "a crime against humanity." It said it happened when Japan "illegally occupied" the Korean Peninsula from 1910-45, and its sovereign immunity cannot shield it from lawsuits in South Korea.
The court said the women were the victims of "harsh sexual activities" by Japanese soldiers who caused them bodily harm, venereal diseases and unwanted pregnancies and left "big mental scars" in the women's lives.
The proceedings in the case had been delayed as Japan refused to receive legal documents. Seven of the 12 women died while waiting for the ruling.
Another 20 women, some already diseased and represented by their surviving relatives, filed a separate suit against Japan, and that ruling is expected next week.
The women were among tens of thousands across occupied Asia and the Pacific who were sent to front-line Japanese military brothels. About 240 South Korean women came forward and registered with the government as victims of sexual slavery, but only 16 of them, all in their 80s and 90s, are still alive.
Observers say it's unlikely for Japan to abide by the South Korean court ruling. A support group for women forced to work as sex slaves said it may take legal steps to seize Japanese government assets in South Korea if Japan refuses to compensate victims.
Japan's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba had summoned South Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo to register Tokyo's protest of the ruling.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato also called the ruling "extremely regrettable," saying "the Japanese government cannot accept this by any means."
South Korea's Foreign Ministry said later Friday it respects the ruling and will strive to restore the dignity of the women. It said it will examine the verdict's possible effects on ties with Japan and make efforts to maintain "future-oriented" cooperation with Tokyo.
Seoul and Tokyo, both key U.S. allies, are closely linked to each other economically and culturally. But their historical and territorial disputes stemming from Japan's colonial occupation have often complicated Washington's efforts to strengthen trilateral cooperation to deal with North Korea's nuclear threat and China's growing influence in the region.
Their relations plunged to one of their lowest levels in decades after South Korea's Supreme Court in 2018 ordered Japanese companies to offer reparations to some elderly South Korean plaintiffs for their wartime forced labor. The spat escalated into a trade war that saw both countries downgrade the other's trade status, and then spilled over to military matters when Seoul threatened to end a trilateral 2016 military intelligence-sharing agreement involving the U.S.
In 2015, South Korea's previous government reached a deal with Japan to resolve the sexual slavery dispute.
Under the deal, Japan offered a fresh apology and agreed to fund a foundation to support victims in return for South Korea stopping to criticize Japan over the issue on the world stage. But South Korea's current government, led by President Moon Jae-in, took steps to dissolve the foundation, saying the 2015 deal lacked legitimacy because officials failed to properly communicate with victims before reaching it.
By HYUNG-JIN KIM Associated Press
Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.