Tokyo and Seoul finally last week resumed high-level diplomatic talks long stalled by differences over interpretations of history and territorial issues.
But the road ahead looks bumpy, as key differences remain over how to compensate former “comfort women” the Japanese military forced to work in its wartime brothels under harsh conditions.
Junichi Ihara, director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Foreign Ministry, met Wednesday in Seoul to discuss the matter with Lee Sang-deok, director general of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau of the South Korean Foreign Ministry.
The two agreed to continue talks, probably next month.
Abe, who is widely regarded as a conservative hawk, sees no choice but to maintain Japan’s long-standing position that all compensation issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule were officially settled by the 1965 Japan-South Korea basic treaty, including those involving the “ianfu,” as the comfort women are euphemistically called in Japan.
Unless Japan budges, the two countries have little hope of getting past the issue, which is the biggest hurdle to improving the bilateral relationship, diplomats and observers said.
“I think it’s difficult. Japan has consistently maintained its position that (all compensation issues) have already been settled legally. I don’t think we can change that,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said in Tokyo.
During the Ihara-Lee meeting, the South Korean side demanded Japan publicly apologize to the ex-comfort women and meet its “legal responsibility” for compensation, according to South Korean daily Chosunilbo.
While reiterating that all compensation issues were settled by the 1965 treaty, the Japanese side also suggest that it will consider extending “humanitarian” assistance to those women, according to the online edition of the newspaper.
When the countries normalized relations in 1965, Tokyo agreed to extend economic assistance worth $500 million to Seoul, which in return dropped compensation claims for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula. The budget of the South Korean government that year was $350 million.
An accord attached to the treaty stated that all compensation issues were “finally and completely” settled.
The Japanese government apparently fears that conceding any flaws in that treaty could unleash an endless stream of compensation demands from South Korean individuals.
Last year, reversing earlier rulings, South Korean courts ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation for forced wartime labor, raising deep concerns among Japanese companies that do business there. The South Korean government has maintained that compensation issues for forced labor during the war were settled by the 1965 treaty.
The South Korean government itself did not initially want to demand legal compensation for the former comfort women, apparently in line with the 1965 treaty. But in recent years, Seoul has reversed its position, calling on Japan to admit its legal responsibility for compensation, deepening distrust among officials in Tokyo.
Japan tried to settle the comfort women issue once and for all by issuing an official statement of apology in 1993 and setting up a privately funded pool of “atonement money” for former comfort women in 1995. Many of the women rejected the unofficial funds.
Former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobuo Ishihara, speaking at a Diet session in February this year, claimed that the South Korean government had agreed to settle the comfort women issue with the 1993 apology statement but has been moving to reverse its stance recently.
The statement bears the name of the chief Cabinet secretary who issued it, Yohei Kono.
“I feel it is very regrettable that the goodwill of the Japanese government at that time has not been used” properly for what he says was the original purpose of settling the comfort women issue, Ishihara said.
Many right-leaning Japanese politicians now believe the Kono statement was too big of a political concession.
In words of genuine apology, the statement for the first time admitted that Japan’s wartime authorities bore overall responsibility for forcing Asian women to provide sex at the “comfort stations” under severe conditions.
Meanwhile, many right-leaning Japanese politicians have tried to play down the overall responsibility of the Japanese authorities, arguing that it was private-sector brokers, not the government or military, who were mainly responsible for recruiting them.
While agreeing this is technically true, at least on the Korean Peninsula, Japanese mainstream historians maintain the government and military should be held responsible because Japanese authorities set up the comfort stations as “logistical facilities” for soldiers, and should have known that many of the women were recruited against their will, through such measures as deception, human trafficking and abduction.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, like many of his aides, is believed to be critical of the Kono statement and once indicated he might revise it.
Despite what he might like to do, Abe nonetheless has officially admitted the women “suffered indescribable hardship” and has since pledged not to revise the Kono statement.
It is widely believed that Abe pledged not to touch the Kono statement only after the United States, Japan’s sole military ally, strongly pressured him to improve ties with South Korea.
South Korea has recently emphasized building relations with China over those with Japan and the United States. The U.S. is now trying to re-cement the trilateral ties binding it to Japan and South Korea to maintain influence in East Asia.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden held a 20-minute teleconference with Abe on Friday, during which he thanked Abe for restarting efforts to improve ties with Seoul, according to a Japanese official.
“(By holding the teleconference), I think Biden expressed U.S. appreciation of Japan’s efforts to improve the Japan-South Korea relationship,” the senior Foreign Ministry official said.
Some experts suggest the only way forward to resolve the issue of compensation for comfort women is for Seoul and Tokyo to word an agreement so ambiguously that each side can interpret it as it likes.
“The word ambiguous may not sound good, but why not adopt comprehensive measures to cover all the issues (involving Japan’s colonial rule), including those on the comfort women?” Jin Chang-soo, director of the Japan Center at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, said at a news conference in Tokyo last month.
By agreeing to such “comprehensive” steps, Japan would be able to avoid directly admitting to legal responsibility for compensation for ex-comfort women, Jin suggested. Jin is regarded as a key policy adviser to South Korean President Park Guen-hye.