Recent colonial compensation lawsuits reflect the metamorphosis of historical grievances in collective public memory into tort claims in private law. This article provides a synthetic view of the nexus of colonial law and history in South Korea–Japan relations, focusing on cross-border litigation brought by former forced laborers and victims of sexual servitude known as “comfort women” during World War II. The concept of public policy (ordre public) in Korea, which has colonial origins, has long served law courts as the standard for deciding the validity of a juristic act. But of late heavy reliance on the general clauses of law in legal proceedings has risked turning history and law into handmaids of national spirit, muddling historical accountability and legal liability. Improvement of South Korea–Japan ties should start from a more accurate understanding of colonial laws and a rounded appreciation of their shared legal history.

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