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Japan and S Korea settle “comfort woman” row

Japan and South Korea have removed the biggest obstacle to better bilateral ties after agreeing to “finally and irreversibly” resolve Tokyo’s use of tens of thousands of Korean women as wartime sex slaves.

In a breakthrough that barely seemed possible a few months ago, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, offered his “most sincere apologies” to the women in a statement issued in Seoul by his foreign minister, Fumio Kishida .

It was not immediately clear if Abe would send a letter of apology to each surviving “comfort woman”.

Later Monday, Abe called the South Korean president, Park Geun-hye , who has described the sex slave row as “the biggest obstacle” to improved ties with Tokyo, and reiterated his apology.

He told reporters that the agreement was based on his commitment to stop future generations from having to repeatedly apologise. “Japan and South Korea are now entering a new era. We should not drag this problem into the next generation.”

Park issued a separate statement saying the deal was the result of her government’s best efforts to resolve the sex slave issue. “I hope the mental pains of the elderly comfort women will be eased,” she said.

Japan also offered to set up a new 1bn yen (£5.6m) fund, with the money, paid directly by the government, divided among the 46 former comfort women still alive, most of whom are in their late 80s and early 90s.

Speaking after make-or-break talks with his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, Kishida heralded a new era of better relations between the two countries, whose strong trade ties and military alliances with the US have been overshadowed by the controversy.

“This marks the beginning of a new era of Japan-South Korea ties,” he told reporters. “I think the agreement we reached is historic and is a groundbreaking achievement.

“[Abe] expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”

The Japanese government also conceded that its military authorities played a role in the sexual enslavement of the women. While avoiding any admission of legal responsibility, Kishida’s statement said: “The issue of comfort women, with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time, was a grave affront to the honour and dignity of large numbers of women, and the government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective.”

Abe and other conservative politicians in Japan had previously questionedwhether the Japanese government and military played any role in coercing the women, arguing that they had been procured by private brokers.

Both countries said the agreement would resolve the issue “finally and irreversibly”, adding that they would refrain from making critical remarks on the subject at the United Nations and in other international forums.

Yun said Seoul would cooperate, as long as Japan followed through on its promises. He also suggested that South Korea was willing to negotiate the removal of a statue of a girl symbolising the comfort women that stands outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Although the statue belongs to privately run campaign groups, Yun said the South Korean government would “strive to solve this issue in an appropriate manner through taking measures such as consulting with related organisations”.

There is disagreement on the exact number of women forced into prostitution by Japan during its 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula. Campaigners say as many as 200,000 women – mostly Koreans, but also Chinese, south-east Asians and a small number of Japanese and Europeans – were forced or tricked into working in military brothels between 1932 and Japan’s defeat in 1945.

Most women took their secret to the grave. South Korean Kim Hak-soon became the first to testify about her experiences in public in 1991. “We must record these sins that were forced upon us,” she said.

South Korea has long called on Japan to issue an official apology, pay compensation to the surviving women and recognise its legal responsibility. Japan stopped short of admitting legal responsibility and stressed that the new fund was a humanitarian gesture.

The Japanese government initially denied the existence of wartime brothels. But in 1993, the then chief cabinet secretary, Yohei Kono , acknowledged and apologised for the first time for Japan’s use of sex slaves.

Over the years, Japan has refused to directly compensate the women, saying all claims were settled in a 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic ties and included more than $800m in grants and loans to South Korea.

In 1995, it set up the privately run Asian women’s fund, which drew on private donations. But many women refused money unless it came directly from the Japanese state. Only about 260 former sex slaves received cash – worth about 2m yen each – and the fund was disbanded in 2007.

The agreement reached on Monday will be welcomed by the US, which has urged its two east Asian allies to settle their differences over second world war history and show a united front in the face of an increasingly assertive China and a nuclear-armed North Korea.

In Beijing, the foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: “We hope to see an improvement of the bilateral relationship between the Japanese and South Korean side.”

Hiroka Shoji , an east Asia researcher at Amnesty International, said: “Today’s agreement must not mark the end of the road in securing justice for the hundreds of thousands [of] women who suffered due to Japan’s military sexual slavery system.

“The women were missing from the negotiation table and they must not be sold short in a deal that is more about political expediency than justice. Until the women get the full and unreserved apology from the Japanese government for the crimes committed against them, the fight for justice goes on.”

The spread of frontline brothels coincided with Japan’s military campaigns in large parts of China and south-east Asia. As colonial ruler of the Korean peninsula, Japan was able to target poor and uneducated victims, typically aged between 13 and 19.

Speculation that a comfort women agreement was in the offing had risen following a bilateral meeting between Abe and Park in early November, their first for three-and-a-half years, and the decision by a South Korean court to acquit a Japanese journalist accused of defaming Park.

The South Korean president had voiced hope that a deal would be reached by the end of this year, 50 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

Source: The Guardian

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