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South Korea and Japan reach landmark deal on comfort women

SEOUL — More than 70 years after the end of World War II, South Korea and Japan reached a landmark agreement yesterday to resolve their dispute over Korean women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japan’s Imperial Army.

South Korean family members of World War II victims at a rally at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul yesterday. Photo: AP

South Korean family members of World War II victims at a rally at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul yesterday. Photo: AP

SEOUL — More than 70 years after the end of World War II, South Korea and Japan reached a landmark agreement yesterday to resolve their dispute over Korean women who were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japan’s Imperial Army.

The agreement, in which Japan made an apology and promised an ¥1 billion (S$11.7 million) payment, was intended to remove one of the most intractable logjams in relations between South Korea and Japan. The so-called comfort women have been the most painful legacy of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, which lasted from 1910 until Japan’s World War II defeat in 1945.

The Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers, announcing the agreement in Seoul, said each side considered it a “final and irrevocable resolution” of the issue.

Both South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailed the deal, and expressed hope that it will open a new chapter in bilateral ties. But the deal was criticised as insufficient by some of the surviving former sex slaves as well as opposition politicians in South Korea, where anti-Japanese sentiments run deep.

“The Japanese government bears a heartfelt responsibility for the comfort women issue, which severely injured the honour and dignity of many women, with the involvement of its military,” Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said yesterday.

Mr Kishida added that Mr Abe had expressed “apologies and remorse from his heart for all those who suffered many pains and scars that are difficult to heal physically and mentally”.

Mr Abe later called Ms Park to deliver the same apologies, Ms Park’s office said. “I hope that the two countries will cooperate closely to build trust based on this agreement and open a new relationship,” she was quoted as telling Mr Abe.

Ms Park, who had refused to meet Mr Abe until last month, has repeatedly urged Japan to address the grievances of comfort women before the neighbours can improve ties.

Speaking to reporters after the phone call with Ms Park, Mr Abe said the deal heralds a “new era” in bilateral relations and added: “We cannot force our children, grandchildren, and children of our future generations to shoulder the fate by which they have to keep apologising.”

Although Japan had previously apologised, including in a 1993 statement that acknowledged responsibility for the practice, yesterday’s agreement signalled a compromise for Mr Abe.

As recently as last year, under pressure from his right wing to scrap the apology, Mr Abe and his conservative political allies agreed to review the evidence that led to it.

Mr Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation, said Mr Abe had chosen a pragmatic approach as stable relations with South Korea were vital to Mr Abe’s most cherished foreign policy goal: Nurturing alliances to counter the growing power of China. “Ultimately, Abe believes in the balance of power,” said Mr Watanabe.

Under the agreement, the Japanese government will give ¥1 billion to a foundation that the South Korean government will establish to help the women.

That Tokyo will provide money directly from the national budget is a potentially significant departure. A previous fund created after the 1993 apology, the Asian Women’s Fund, relied on private donors and was never fully accepted in South Korea.

Japan also won an important concession from Seoul, a promise not to criticise Tokyo over the comfort women again. The Korean women who survived the war had lived mostly in silence because of the stigma, until some of them began speaking out in the early 1990s.

A total of 238 former comfort women have since come forward in South Korea, but only 46 are still living, most of them in their 80s and 90s.

Initial reactions to the resolution from former comfort women in South Korea were far from welcoming.

“The agreement does not reflect the views of former comfort women,” said Ms Lee Yong-soo, 88, during a news conference. “I will ignore it completely.” She said the deal fell far short of the women’s longstanding demand that Japan admit legal responsibility and offer formal reparations.

Japan has maintained that all legal issues stemming from its colonial rule of Korea were resolved with the 1965 treaty that normalised relations between the two countries. Negotiators from both nations forged a compromise with the vaguely-worded agreement yesterday, which did not clarify whether the responsibility that the Japanese government acknowledged was legal or moral. Mr Kishida made it clear that the money Japan was offering was not legal reparation. AGENCIES

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