Many Challenges Remain in Settling Comfort Women Issues

David Lee, Dec. 28, 2015, 8:30 a.m.


The landmark agreement between South Korea and Japan to end their dispute over Japan's wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women has already prompted questions about whether it really is the end. The two countries' top diplomats announced the terms of the deal in a press conference Monday, wrapping up 12 rounds of bilateral working-level talks that began in April 2014.

Key features of the agreement included a personal apology from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his country's wartime crime, the Japanese government's admission of responsibility for it and a 1 billion yen contribution to a support fund for victims to be set up by the South Korean government. While the deal satisfied some of Seoul's key demands, critics and some victims immediately protested the lack of "legal responsibility" on the part of Japan.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said the Japanese government "feels acutely responsible" for the damage it caused to the honor and dignity of many women, with the involvement of the Japanese military during World War II. He did not state whether it is "moral" or "legal" responsibility. Historians estimate that more than 200,000 women, mostly Koreans, were forced to work in front-line brothels for Japanese soldiers during the war. Korea was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910-45.

Japan has acknowledged moral responsibility for the crime in the past but refused to accept legal responsibility on the grounds that all legal issues were settled under a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral ties. Only 46 South Korean victims are still alive. "What we have been demanding is legal compensation from Japan," said 88-year-old Lee Yong-soo, a former comfort woman. "We are not doing this because we do not have money." The 1 billion yen contribution from Japan is also far from covering the damages victims have sought against Tokyo at South Korea's courts.

"I'll have to speak to the (victims) about whether they want to continue the legal action, but 1 billion yen seems nowhere near enough," Kim Kang-won, a lawyer representing the victims, told Yonhap News Agency by phone. More than 200 victims have filed suits against the Japanese government, although some are now represented by their heirs. Kang said Japan will have pay at least 10 billion yen to cover the costs. The deal will no doubt have political repercussions.

Negotiations to resolve the comfort women issue got a boost from last month's first-ever summit between President Park Geun-hye and Abe as the two leaders agreed to accelerate the talks for a swift resolution. Prior to that meeting, which was arranged on the sidelines of a trilateral summit with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Park had refused to meet Abe one-on-one until the Japanese leader showed sincerity about resolving the comfort women issue.

Following the talks, Park called for a resolution by the end of this year, the 50th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral ties. Japan's Kyodo news agency reported Sunday that Park and Abe could meet on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington next March to announce a joint statement on the resolution of the comfort women issue. Cheong Wa Dae, South Korea's presidential office, denied the report.
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