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'Comfort woman' calls for case to be brought to international court

Lee Yong-soo, a survivor of wartime sexual slavery by the Japanese, called on Tokyo and Seoul on Tuesday to refer the issue to the United Nations' International Court of Justice. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
Lee Yong-soo, a survivor of wartime sexual slavery by the Japanese, called on Tokyo and Seoul on Tuesday to refer the issue to the United Nations' International Court of Justice. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- A 92-year-old Korean survivor of wartime sexual slavery by the Japanese called on Seoul and Tokyo on Tuesday to bring the divisive diplomatic issue of so-called comfort women to the International Court of Justice for resolution.

Lee Yong-soo spoke at a press conference in downtown Seoul, addressing South Korean President Moon Jae-in and asking him to refer the case to the United Nations' highest court in order to receive a ruling while the last remaining comfort women are still alive.

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"I am desperate," she said. "There is no time now . . . My last wish is for the president to get a judgment under international law from our government."

Lee is one of 15 registered surviving South Korean victims of sexual slavery by Japan. Some 200,000 girls and women, most of them Korean, were forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.

RELATED Harvard Law professor's 'comfort woman' article under review, journal says

The contentious issue returned to the foreground last month after a Seoul court ordered Japan to pay reparations of around $90,000 each to a group of 12 former comfort women, the euphemism used to describe the wartime sex slaves.

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Japan rejected the ruling, with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi calling it a "violation of international law" that ignored Japan's claim of state immunity against being prosecuted in a foreign court.

Tokyo has long contended that all wartime reparations claims were settled by a 1965 bilateral treaty that normalized relations between the two countries.

RELATED Harvard Law students decry professor's paper on 'comfort women'

A further 2015 agreement between then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and since-impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye contributed some $8 million to set up a foundation to support the comfort women.

However, in 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in declared that the negotiations had serious flaws and said the agreement "does not resolve the issue over comfort women."

The subject has been further inflamed in recent days by a controversial article by Harvard law professor Mark Ramseyer alleging that the comfort women were not forced into slavery but were involved in a "consenting, contractual process."

RELATED Seoul court orders Japan to pay damages to South Korean 'comfort women'

The claim has triggered a backlash from students at the Ivy League campus and the victims themselves in South Korea.

"Even now, in the United States, there is a Harvard professor who is still lying," said Lee, who broke down in tears as she read her remarks.

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"We are not asking for money," she said. "We want to receive full recognition and an apology."

Lee, along with a group of activists and legal scholars, argued Tuesday that the only way to allow both countries to move forward is for an international court to make a final ruling.

"Let's take this responsibility and go to the International Court together," Lee said, addressing Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. "Let's get the judgment, make a complete solution and get along. Only then will our descendants be able to live with peace of mind. I don't want to be enemies with my neighbors. Let's resolve it and get along."

South Korea and Japan would need to agree to bring the case to the ICJ, said Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, an international law expert at Yonsei University who participated in the press conference Tuesday.

"Because the Japanese government has been claiming for many years that South Korea has violated international law, if South Korea requests this referral to the ICJ there's no logical ground for Japan to refuse such a request," Shin told UPI.

Based on precedent, Shin said he believed the ICJ would find that the comfort woman system was a war crime and a crime against humanity. He added that primary motives of the comfort women are not financial reparations, but a full public reckoning of the horrors they endured.

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"[A hearing] will leave behind the testimonies and documents as trial records for posterity," Shin said. "And at least in non-monetary remedies, Japan could be obliged to make an apology, admit responsibility and provide historical education. In that sense, it would be a victory in substance for the comfort women."

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