In a surprising condemnation of government policy, a court Monday ordered Japan to pay $2,300 each to three South Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Japan has persistently refused to pay individual redress to former sex slaves and other war victims, arguing that postwar treaties settled all claims.But Judge Hideaki Chikashita, at the Yamaguchi District Court in southwestern Japan, ruled the government must compensate the women for their suffering, calling it a "fundamental violation of human rights."

Both the Japanese Foreign Ministry in Tokyo and a Foreign Affairs Ministry official in Seoul declined comment until the ruling could be studied.

The ruling, the first in a lawsuit filed by former sex slaves, is likely to have a profound effect on five pending cases and may encourage others to come forward and file new lawsuits.

Historians say as many as 200,000 Asian women, euphemistically referred to as "comfort women," were taken to front-line brothels and repeatedly raped by the soldiers.

It was only in 1992, after many years of silence, that Japan admitted that the imperial army was involved in setting up and running the brothels. The women filed their lawsuit that year.

In this case, 10 women had demanded a total of $4.2 million for the pain they suffered at the hands of the Japanese military. The court rejected claims by seven of them who were forced to work in Japanese military plants but were not sex slaves, a court official said.

National TV news had showed the women, some wearing traditional Korean dress, slowly walking into the courtroom hand-in-hand. When the ruling was announced, supporters outside the courthouse clapped and cheered.