Photo/Illutration Lee Yong-su, a former "comfort woman" who is aged 92 and part of a group seeking compensation from Japan for their wartime ordeal, speaks with reporters April 21 after the Seoul Central District Court ruled against them. (Lee Seong-jin)

SEOUL--In a surprise turnaround, the Seoul Central District Court on April 21 rejected a compensation claim against Japan by 20 former “comfort women” and their supporters, citing Tokyo's sovereign immunity.

A different judge in the Seoul Central District Court ruled Jan. 8 that 12 plaintiffs were entitled to compensation for being forced to provide sex to Japanese wartime military personnel.

The plaintiffs had sought 3 billion won (290 million yen, or $2.7 million) from the Japanese government, which has consistently argued its sovereign immunity under international law means it cannot face a trial overseas.

It also contends that all compensation claims stemming from World War II were settled by a 1965 bilateral agreement that ushered in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The government not only did not appear in any of the court sessions but steadfastly refused to acknowledge the January ruling in favor of the plaintiffs.

One of the plaintiffs in the latest case is Lee Yong-su, 92. 

She met with reporters after the latest ruling and described it as “preposterous.” Lee said she wanted the case to be heard by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Although the plaintiffs are bound to appeal, there is zero chance that Japan will pay compensation, even if higher courts rule against it.

For this reason, the plaintiffs want the governments of Japan and South Korea to take the case to the ICJ.

Lee and the other plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in December 2016.

Despite the lack of representation from Japan, the Seoul Central District Court went ahead with procedures to start court proceedings.

The court ruled April 21 that international common law principles and South Korean court precedents obliged it to recognize Japan’s sovereign immunity.

“The South Korean government must resolve the issue through diplomatic negotiations with Japan in order to provide recovery for the victims,” the court said.

On April 20, the Seoul Central District Court announced it had rejected a request by the plaintiffs in the January ruling to begin procedures to seize assets of the Japanese government held in South Korea. The plaintiffs sought to have the seized assets to pay their legal expenses.

However, the district court ruled that asset seizure involving another country could constitute a violation of international law.

It also noted that some of the plaintiffs in the January case had accepted support money from a fund set up through a contribution of 1 billion yen by the Japanese government in line with a landmark 2015 agreement with South Korea to provide support to former comfort women.