SEOUL – Japan and South Korea held a meeting Wednesday regarding the issue of Korean females forced to serve at brothels for the wartime Japanese military.
The meeting was part of efforts to improve bilateral relations ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to the two countries, and Malaysia and the Philippines starting next week.
The United States has called for improved ties between its two key allies in Asia before Obama visits the region. Japan hopes the meeting will help pave the way for a summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
The Seoul talks involve Junichi Ihara, director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo, and Lee Sang Deok, director general of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau of South Korea’s Foreign Ministry.
Japan has sounded out South Korea about putting an end this year to the issue of the “comfort women” before the two countries mark the 50th anniversary next year of normalizing diplomatic relations, according to Japanese government officials.
Japan will not respond to calls for compensation by the “comfort women,” but is considering extending humanitarian measures such as an official apology and funding for the women, the officials said.
Japan has maintained that all compensation issues were settled under a 1965 bilateral treaty that normalized diplomatic ties. Despite that official position, Japan provided money as atonement to former comfort women through the Asian Women’s Fund, a pool of private donations set up at Tokyo’s initiative in 1995 and run through 2007.
In late March, Abe held a trilateral summit with Park and Obama in the Netherlands after Park welcomed Abe’s announcement that his government will not revise a 1993 apology for comfort women.
The so-called Kono statement, issued by then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, acknowledged for the first time the involvement of the military and the use of coercion in recruiting women to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II. But recently, some conservative politicians have called for revising it, citing insufficient evidence.
Abe, who came to power in December 2012, and Park, who took office in February 2013, have not held bilateral talks, amid tensions over perceptions of history and a territorial dispute.
South Korea sought to limit the bureau-head conference to the comfort women issue as a condition for accepting the summit in The Hague. Japan agreed to focus on the topic, at least at the first session.
Japan hopes for further talks between the two bureau heads on a wider range of pending issues, including the territorial dispute over South Korean-held Sea of Japan islets called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea.
Japan also hopes that the discussions between the senior diplomats will lead to the realization of a bilateral summit.
Ihara is slated to stay in South Korea until Thursday.