SEOUL – South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Saturday cautioned that Japan will face isolation if it pushes ahead with a move to revisit its official apology over wartime sex slavery.
Her warning, which emerged in a speech marking the anniversary of a 1919 uprising against Japanese rule of the Korean Peninsula, coincided with the opening in Seoul of a rare exhibition on the “comfort women,” Japan’s euphemism for the tens of thousands of females who were forced to work in Imperial Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration is moving to reconsider then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono’s 1993 apology for the comfort women, putting further pressure on the two countries’ already frayed ties.
“Historical truth is in testimony from the survivors. Japan would only bring isolation on itself if it turns a deaf ear to their testimony and sweeps it under the rug for political benefits,” Park said.
She called on Japan to follow Germany in repenting for past wrongs so the two neighbors can put bitter memories behind them and “move forward for a new era of cooperation, peace and prosperity.”
“I hope Japan extricates itself from denial of history and starts making a new history of truth and reconciliation,” she said.
Hundreds of Korean protesters were killed in a 1919 crackdown on demonstrations demanding independence from Japan, which annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910 and imposed harsh colonial rule until 1945.
The politically charged issue of the comfort women has stoked regional tensions, with South Korea and China insisting Japan must face up to its wartime history of sexually enslaving women from across occupied Asia.
Meanwhile, a history museum in Seoul has comics on display describing the plight of the comfort women and featuring artworks by the survivors. The display includes a diary kept by an operator of one of the wartime military brothels, which South Korea says is material evidence that proves coercion was used. The comics made their debut at an international comic book festival in France last month, sparking a Japanese protest.
In 1993, after hearing testimony from 16 Korean women, Kono issued a landmark statement acknowledging official government complicity in the coercion of women into sexual slavery. It offered “sincere apologies and remorse” to the women and vowed that Japan would face the historical facts squarely.
Two years later, then-Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama announced a Diet-endorsed apology.
But repeated wavering on the issue among senior right-wing politicians has contributed to a feeling in South Korea that Japan is not sufficiently remorseful about what took place.
In remarks in 2007 that triggered a regional uproar, Abe in his first term as prime minister said there was no evidence that Japan directly forced women to become sex slaves.
Last week, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told the Diet that the government “would like to consider” setting up a verification team with academics who would look again at the women’s accounts from 1993.
Murayama said Thursday that revising the Kono statement would not serve the country’s interests.
Respected historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also from China and other Asian nations, were forced to provide sex for Imperial Japanese soldiers in military brothels. However, a minority of Japanese right-wingers insist there was no official involvement by the state or the military in the brothels and claim the women were common prostitutes.