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Lee Yong-soo, left, Gil Won-ok, centre, and Lee Ok-sun attend a news conference near the Seoul Central District Court, in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov. 13, 2019.

ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

A South Korean woman who had been forced to work in a Japanese wartime military brothel said Japan lacked honour for failing to attend a South Korean court on Wednesday as it began hearing a civil case brought against its government by a group of victims.

“I am a living proof of history,” said Lee Yong-soo, the 91-year-old survivor, her voice quaking with emotion as she addressed a news conference held near the courthouse, before proceedings began.

“Japan isn’t being honourable. They should show up at court if they are,” Lee said, urging Japan to apologize and compensate its victims or make its case in court.

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Reminders of Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean peninsula are inflammatory for both sides. But, the issue of “comfort women” – Japan’s euphemism for Asian women, many of whom were Korean, forced to work in its wartime brothels, is especially contentious.

When the suit was filed with the Seoul Central District Court in December 2016, there were 11 surviving “comfort women” and the families of six deceased victims in the group of plaintiffs. Nearly three years later, only five are still alive.

They are seeking compensation from the Japanese government worth 200 million won ($172,000) per victim. The case marks another legal battle over the legacy of Japan’s 1910-45 colonization, and ties between the two governments are in their worst state in decades as a result of ruling by South Korea’s Supreme Court last year, when it ordered Japanese firms to compensate some wartime forced labourers.

Tokyo had refused to hear the women’s case against its government, maintaining that the matter of compensation for the women was settled under the 1965 treaty that normalized relations.

The Japanese government did not send any representative to the court in Seoul, as it is not obliged to under South Korea’s civil law.

Instead, Japan’s foreign ministry has sent back related documents three times from 2017-18, primarily citing an international convention that allows a state to reject legal records which may breach its sovereignty or security if accepted.

“This is the first-ever trial for the surviving victims, and could be the last one given their ages,” Lee Sang-hee, a lawyer for the women, told the trial.

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“These survivors were victims of systematic sexual violence … but the two countries reached an unacceptable settlement without asking the victims’ opinions.”

Japan’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated the issue was “completely and finally” resolved, referring to the 1965 treaty and a 2015 deal.

“In terms of international law, the Japanese government is not subject to South Korean jurisdiction because of the principle of sovereign immunity,” Suga told a regular briefing on Wednesday before the trial.

In 2015, South Korea and Japan reached a settlement under which Tokyo issued an official apology and provided 1 billion yen ($9.17-million) to a fund to help the victims.

But many victims rejected the agreement, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office in 2017, dissolved the fund, effectively scrapping the deal.

Ryu Gwang-ok, another lawyer for the women, refuted Suga’s remarks, saying the principle of sovereign immunity cannot be applied for “such a case of grave violations of human rights.”

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