Open Letter in Support of Referral of "Comfort Women" Issues to the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ)

Open Letter

in Support of Referral of "Comfort Women" Issues

by the Governments of South Korea and Japan

to the UN International Court of Justice


April 15, 2021

Dear South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide:

The undersigned represent an international coalition of advocates and scholars who have researched, taught, and campaigned alongside the “comfort women” survivors in their tireless pursuit of redress for one of the greatest unremedied injustices of the Second World War.

The “comfort women” system, a euphemism for Imperial Japan’s policy and practice of military sexual slavery across the Asia Pacific region, is widely acknowledged to be the largest known case of modern, institutionalized wartime sexual violence against countless victims and survivors who have testified and come forward from Korea, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, East Timor, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea, in addition to other territories occupied by Imperial Japan from the 1930s throughout the duration of the Second World War.

At 93 years old, Lee Yong-soo halmoni is one of the last known Korean survivors of the “comfort women” system. Her final wish is that the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN’s principal judicial organ, hear and render a definitive ruling on Japan’s responsibility for the imperial wartime military sexual slavery and trafficking system.

For the ten reasons set forth below, and in support of Lee Yong-soo halmoni’s appeal, we jointly recommend and urge the governments of South Korea and Japan to refer the dispute over “comfort women” issues to the ICJ, as a ground-breaking and pragmatic recourse.

(1) The ICJ is a neutral and binding public international forum with the authority to order Japan to carry out the victims’ demands for justice, including an official apology, acknowledgement of the “comfort women” system as a crime under international law, full disclosure and investigation, prosecution of responsible individuals, ongoing public education, and preservation of the history through museums and memorials.

These demands for justice, articulated by the survivors for the past thirty years, are consistent with recommendations made by international legal authorities who have analyzed the “comfort” system, including UN Special Rapporteurs and human rights treaty bodies, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as with the 2005 UN Basic Principles on Reparation for victims of grave human rights violations.

(2) A full and frank apology is appropriate and crucial. To date, the Japanese government’s statements regarding the “comfort women” have been inconsistent and ambiguous. None of the purported “apologies” have been conveyed in person by Japanese governmental officials to the survivors or ratified by the Diet or Cabinet of Japan. Moreover, they have been undermined by the ongoing efforts to suppress education and commemoration of this history in Japan and around the world.

(3) Survivors across multiple countries, from Korea, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands, have exhausted all available remedies in national courts in pursuing the Japanese government’s legal responsibility and official, direct, specific, and personal apology.

(4) Political and diplomatic efforts have failed to realize such an acknowledgement of legal responsibility or apology, or to repair tensions between South Korea and Japan. The verbal accord announced by the Foreign Ministers of the two nations on December 28, 2015 has been widely criticized and condemned for excluding the Korean victims from the negotiations and for categorically ignoring “comfort women” victims from all of the other nations occupied by Imperial Japan.

(5) The ICJ proceedings will afford the “comfort women” victims a day in court to make their case through written and oral testimonies submitted by the South Korean government, and those testimonies as well as documentary evidence will be preserved for present and future generations as part of the trial record.

(6) Both states can thoroughly present their respective positions before the ICJ. Japan can argue procedural issues, such as jurisdictional immunity of a foreign state (sovereign immunity) and waiver of individual claims through past international agreements. South Korea, on behalf of the “comfort women” victims, can argue substantive issues regarding the illegality of the “comfort” system as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other grave human rights violations, as well as Japan’s obligations to provide redress.

It is worth nothing that sovereign immunity is an evolving doctrine under customary international law, and that courts have begun to restrict its application in cases brought by victims of grave human rights violations against states which have failed to provide adequate remedies, as multiple international jurists have observed.

(7) Referring “comfort women” issues to the ICJ would relieve the ongoing burden on both governments of having to navigate these fraught issues through diplomatic or political channels by removing them to expert adjudication before a competent, independent, and impartial court established by the Charter of the United Nations.

(8) A definitive ruling under international law can deliver justice and emotional closure to the remaining survivors, as well as provide both states with a degree of certainty and break-through in their key bilateral relationship, which has deteriorated over the past decade.

(9) An ICJ proceeding presents a historic opportunity for the eminent states of South Korea and Japan to demonstrate a genuine, credible commitment to human rights and to gender equality and women’s empowerment, as both governments have recently espoused.

Without first resolving “comfort women” issues as one of the most infamous cases of state-sanctioned sexual slavery and human trafficking in modern history, however, the Japanese government’s pledge to champion women’s rights as universal human rights will continue to ring hollow.

(10) The ICJ is a court of last resort for the elderly “comfort women” survivors and victims, who have been campaigning for an official, direct, specific, and personal apology in the eleventh hour of their lives.

The “comfort women” have waited seventy-six (76) years for justice. It is now or never for the governments involved to take unequivocal action and resolve the historical dispute over this unprecedented institution of militarized sexual violence throughout the Second World War. To that end, we collectively:

(A) Urge the governments of South Korea and Japan to proceed expeditiously towards adjudication of these issues before the ICJ;

(B) Call upon all actors in the international arena with a substantial interest in the resolution of Japan’s responsibility for the imperial wartime military sexual slavery and trafficking system to firmly support referral of these issues to the ICJ; and

(C) Invite all individuals to add their voices as members of civil society in support of this extraordinary step towards resolving one of the most distressing human rights issues of our time – impunity for sexual and gender-based violence in armed conflict – through a vow of “Never again.”



Comfort Women Action for Redress and Education (CARE)

Alexis Dudden, Professor of History, University of Connecticut

Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force

Bonnie Oh, Distinguished Professor of Korean Studies (Ret.), Georgetown University

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International (CATW)

Comfort Women Justice Coalition (CWJC)

Dongchan Kim, Korean American Civic Empowerment (KACE)

Michael W. ("Mike") Honda (Former Congressman, D-CA)

Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress (NCRR)

Nikkei Progressives

Rape of Nanjing Redress Coalition (RNRC)

Sharon Cabusao-Silva, Coordinator, Lila Pilipina

Carol Ruff, Artist & Daughter of former "comfort woman" Jan Ruff O'Herne

Miki Dezaki, Director, Shusenjo: The Main Battleground of the Comfort Women Issue

Jan Banning, Artist/Photographer, Troostmeisjes (Comfort Women), the Netherlands

Hilde Janssen, Journalist/Writer, Schaamte & Onschuld (Shame and Innocence), Troostmeisjes (Comfort Women), the Netherlands

Chang-Jin Lee, Visual Artist, Comfort Women Wanted (Incheon Women Artists' Biennale, 2009)

Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues, Inc. (WCCW)

YWCA Glendale & YWCA Pasadena (California)

Alliance for Preserving the Truth of the Sino-Japanese War (APTSJW)

Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia

The Gender Security Project, The Global South

Peace Butterfly of Suwon (수원평화나비), South Korea

B.C. ALPHA (Association for Learning & Preserving the History of WWII in Asia), Canada

Yuji Hosaka, Professor, Political Science, Sejong University (호사카 유지 교수, 정치과학, 세종대학교)

Caroline Norma, Professor, RMIT University (Australia), Author (Comfort Women and Post-Occupation Corporate Japan and The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery During the China and Pacific Wars)

Margaret Stetz, Professor, Women's Studies and Humanities, University of Delaware

E. Taylor Atkins, Associate Dean, Professor of History, Northern Illinois University

Jinhee J. Lee, Associate Professor of History, Eastern Illinois University

Marcy L. Tanter, Ph.D., Tarleton State University

Michael Chwe, Economist and Professor, Political Science, UCLA

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Statement by Lee Yong-soo

93-year-old survivor of Japan's imperial military "comfort women" system during WWII


President Moon Jae-in and fellow citizens,

This statement from which I am reading is my own words as transcribed by Phyllis Kim, Executive Director of Comfort Women Action for Redress and Education, and Hyuk-soo Suh, Executive Director of the Daegu Citizens' Forum for the Halmonis (Grandmothers). I have reviewed this transcript.

I am a daughter of Joseon Korea. In those days, Korea was a world without the rule of law. It was a time when Japanese police officers wielded long swords, took anything they wanted, and stabbed and beat those who did not obey them. If a crying child was told that a tiger is coming, the child would not stop crying. But if a crying child was told that a Japanese police officer is coming, the child would stop crying at once. It was in those days that I was forcibly taken away.

I was so young and naive, I did not understand things then. After having survived such things, however, and, later, attending the Wednesday Demonstrations and demanding an official apology and legal compensation, the thought occurred to me -- the world was lawless at that time, but where is the law today? Why must we shout and rally for the same demands for 30 years?

Up until now, I have done everything that I possibly can. We have traveled the world to testify. I went to the U.S. to help pass a resolution and to San Francisco to establish a memorial.

We even had trials. In Japan, we had a trial. But, even now, Japan still acts in a lawless manner. We won the first trial and lost the second trial. In the third trial, the documents were redacted, such that all the contents were blacked out from the record.

So we went to the Korean court. But Japan dismisses the court’s decision and does not even deign to appeal. On the contrary, it has the audacity to insist that the Korean court has violated international law. Even now, Japan is spreading lies, this time through a Harvard professor in America.

I am not asking for money. I am asking for a full admission of forced sex slavery and an official apology from Japan. There is no other alternative. I ask that our Korean government expose Japan’s war crimes through the principles of international law.

Please seek a judgement from the International Court of Justice so that Japan may realize and reflect on its past wrongs. It would be a tremendous thing to obtain an impartial judgement by the International Court of Justice and thoroughly resolve the issue, such that the two countries are not enemies but move forward together.

I am desperate. There is no time left. As my final wish, I request our President that the South Korean government seek a judgement from the International Court of Justice, so that I may face the other grandmothers (survivors) in heaven.

The situation with Japan is truly a shame. Students should grow up, having exchanges and befriending each other, studying each other’s correct history.

There’s no need to say much, other than both countries should assume responsibility and proceed to the International Court of Justice.

To Japanese Prime Minister Suga, I say: people are the same everywhere. I hate the crime, but I do not hate the people. Prime Minister Suga, let’s go forth together.

Should we not thoroughly resolve the issue in a way that allows the two countries to become closer? How much longer will this back-and-forth continue? Let us seek cooperation, with a judgement in hand and a definitive resolution. Then, would not our future generations have peace of mind? I cannot abide being enemies with neighbors. Let us solve this, so that we may come and go as we please, and move forward together as good friends.

President Moon, have you not said that it is crucial to realize a resolution that reflects the survivors’ will?

What is the will of the survivors? They are the same seven demands for which we have cried out endlessly for the past thirty years. The most important demands are Japan’s heartfelt acknowledgement of responsibility and official apology. Is not the entire country aware of this?

President Moon, please let the International Court of Justice render a judgement under international law regarding the “comfort women” issue. Please let the issue be formally recognized under international law, so that Japan will no longer make hollow claims in front of the international community. In this way, the survivors’ honor, dignity, and human rights will be restored in front of the international arena.

President Moon, I beseech you. So that when I come before Kim Hak-sun and all the survivors who have gone before me, please allow me to bring them these words -- that Japan’s atrocities have been judged before the eyes of the world, that I have done all I can, and that all may now rest peacefully.

I believe with all my heart that President Moon will exert unconditional efforts for a resolution that reflects the will of the grandmothers. This is my one desire.

I beseech you.


Lee Yong-soo

February 16, 2021

[1] Open Letter (4-14-21 FINAL).docx