Anti-Japanese Sentiment Must Not Override International Law

      April 22, 2021 13:32

      The Seoul Central District Court on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit by former sex slaves seeking compensation from the Japanese government. In January, the same court had ruled in favor of a different group of former sex slaves. The result is judicial chaos.

      Nobody in Korea doubts the crimes committed by Japan against the former sex slaves, and all Koreans agree that the victims must be compensated. The judges in the latest case probably share that sentiment. But the law is the law, and it grants states sovereign immunity from the jurisdiction of another country. In other words, the Japanese government cannot be tried in a Korean court. The question before the court was not whether Japan did anything wrong but whether a Korean court has jurisdiction over a foreign government. Most countries acknowledge sovereign immunity for similar crimes, even when war crimes are alleged. Such issues must then be resolved either through diplomacy or the International Court of Justice in the Hague, where cases can only be brought by countries, not by individuals or public prosecutors.

      The judges in the first case said there exists an exception for "crimes against humanity," but these too are not normally a matter for ordinary criminal courts but for international courts and tribunals. The confusion has not been helped by the Moon Jae-in administration, which has always been eager to stoke populist anti-Japanese sentiment. It made a great show of revoking a face-saving agreement that former President Park Geun-hye had signed with Japan in 2015 under murky circumstances, by dismantling a foundation set up with 1 billion yen to compensate the victims. Moon also made almost no diplomatic efforts to improve relations with Japan while inviting the victims to various national ceremonies to cash in on anti-Japanese sentiment. It was only when he wanted Japanese support for one of his harebrained attempts to engage North Korea that he described the first court ruling in January as "perplexing."

      The issue of the former sex slaves is an international matter, and Korea cannot hope to find international support unless it respects international law. Some judges seem to woo public approbation with their judgments and can in some way profit from anti-Japanese sentiment. But it is precisely in this area that vigilance is of the essence. Yoon Mee-hyang, the former head of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, is a case in point. She was able to cloak herself for years in the garb of honest advocacy of the victims while in fact she thieved, embezzled and coerced, stealing money from both the victims and the government, and anti-Japanese sentiment helped her do it with impunity. Her actions have been gleefully seized on by rightwingers in Japan and set the cause of the victims back for decades. In this charged atmosphere it is doubly important that the law is observed to the letter.

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