Property and Damages: Why The Double Standard on Japan?

A recent South Korean court ruling has been finalized, ordering the Japanese government to pay damages to a group of women over their treatment in Japanese military brothels. The lawsuit dates back to January 2016, but has only been finalized very recently.

However, the Foreign Minister Toshmitsu Motegi has urged South Korea to take immediate action against this court ruling, as it clearly goes against international law and the agreement between the Japanese and South Korean governments.

The Importance of Sovereign Immunity

This is reminiscent of another fairly recent case that dates back to November 2018, where a South Korean court ruled against two Japanese companies in violation of international law.

The trial of the former Comfort Women, who were under the Japanese military brothel system in the past, should be dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity, a principle of international law that allows a state to be protected from jurisdiction.

It is merely common sense for a state to not be subjected under the jurisdiction of a foreign country over its acts of property.

In this specific case, it is obvious that the international order would be destroyed if national assets, including embassies and consulates general, were forcibly executed by a foreign court.

Study Cases from the Past

The South Korean versus Japanese case is not a stand-alone occurrence. During World War II, a Greek court has ordered the German government to pay reparations to the relatives of the victims murdered during the massacre in the village of Distomo in the previously occupied Greece.

In this case, the victim’s relatives filed a complaint against the German government, and although it was a judicial abuse of power, the Greek Justice Minister respected the principle of sovereign immunity. The Greece government has made the sensible decision to not give the necessary permission to seize German property in the country despite the judgement.

The Greek plaintiffs then appealed to an Italian court to seize the German government’s assets in Italy. The Italian court ruled that the plaintiff could seize German property in Italy on the basis of a ruling which was issued by the Greek court, and in fact allowed the seizure of the land and building owned by Germany near Lake Como.

In a different case, the Italian court also ruled against the German government in a lawsuit filed by Italian nationals who claimed forced labor by the German government during World War II. In response, Germany brought the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

In 2012, the ICJ ruled that the Italian court’s decisions in fact violated the sovereign immunity of Germany, as well as disobeyed International law. Italy decided to abide by this decision, and decency won.

The International Effect and Implications

Why does South Korea does not share this kind of decency? Does it choose to ignore the ICJ’s precedent, believing that they could escape even if Japan appeals to the ICJ?

As mentioned, this issue is not limited to the bilateral relationship between Japan and South Korea. It is quite difficult to see a country, which cannot abide by the basic principle of international relations, as decent. A state should not be subjected to foreign courts, let alone compulsory execution of state property.