Comfort woman survivor Lee Yong-su (far left) speaks during a press conference organized by MINBYUN-Lawyers for a Democratic Society in Seoul on Nov. 13. (Baek So-ah, staff photographer)


“I did nothing wrong. At age 14, I was taken by the Japanese, and I suffered all kinds of torture before I returned. Your Honor, if Japan were dignified, they would here at this trial. They are at fault for not being here.”

Lee Yong-su, a survivor of life as a Japanese military “comfort woman,” stood on her knees before the bench. At the first hearing in the three years since she filed suit against the Japanese government, her tearful appeal filled courtroom 558 at Seoul Central District Court on Nov. 13. Even after the judge pleaded with her to “take a seat and speak from there,” she brushed away the court security guards and attorneys who attempted to help her up as she continued to speak.

“Under rain and snow, I have spent the past 30 years crying out in front of the Japanese Embassy. Crying for an investigation, for an apology and compensation — that is how I have lived for more than 90 years,” she said. “Your Honor, in all your wisdom, please look.”

The first hearing in a lawsuit filed by Japanese military comfort women survivors to demand compensation from the Japanese government was held on Nov. 13 before Hon. Yu Seok-dong of the 15th civil division of Seoul Central District Court. The defendants’ seats, where Japanese government representatives should have been, were empty; Tokyo has refused to be a party to the trial. Meanwhile, comfort women survivors Lee Yong-su, Gil Won-ok, and Lee Ok-seon appeared in person in the courtroom using wheelchairs and canes. Denouncing the Japanese government for dodging its responsibilities, they called on the court to hold Japan legally responsible for the comfort women issue.

Six of 11 survivors who took part in lawsuit have passed away

The lawsuit demanding compensation from the Japanese government was filed in December 2016 — one year after the South Korean and Japanese governments reached their agreement on the comfort women issue — by Lee, other survivors, and 21 surviving family members. Since then, not a single hearing had been held. For a lawsuit to begin, a complaint had to be delivered to a Japanese court, but the Japanese Foreign Ministry has thrice refused to accept the documents since April 2017. While the Japanese government has refused to participate in the trial, six of the 11 survivors who took part in the lawsuit have passed away, including Kim Bok-dong and Gwak Ye-nam.

In March of this year, the court finally decided on an approach of conveyance by public announcement, a system under which a document is regarded as having reached its destination through announcement on the court’s bulletin board. It took effect as of May, paving the way for the first hearing on Nov. 13. This marks the first time an argument date has been designated for a lawsuit in a South Korean court against the Japanese government.

Tokyo’s claim to sovereignty in refusing to participate in case

Tokyo’s rationale for refusing to participate in the trial is its “infringement of sovereignty.” In May, Japan communicated to the South Korean government that the lawsuit should be dismissed, contending that its compliance with the South Korean trial authority was not recognized according to the international legal principle of sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity is a principle in international law holding that a country’s courts cannot exercise its authority for trying a civil case filed against another state.

Lee Sang-hee, an attorney with a task force responding to the comfort women issue, said at the hearing that there was “international precedent of regarding the customary international law that recognizes state immunity for grievous infringements as a violation of Constitutional values.”

“It would be contrary to the Constitutional order not to produce a judgment on the substantive rights of the Japanese military comfort women victims, as it would prevent the exercise of their right to compensation,” Lee said.

“In view of the victims’ advanced age, this is effectively the last lawsuit. We hope the court will officially recognize Japan’s crime against human rights,” she added.

The hearing lasted just over 20 minutes. The survivors’ representatives announced that they planned to request the presence of witnesses including an expert who recorded testimony from Japanese military comfort women survivors and a scholar on Japanese law to offer a rebuttal on the theory of sovereign immunity. The next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 5 of next year.


By Ko Han-sol and Jang Ye-ji, staff reporter