Abe, Park hold first bilateral talks since taking office, address ‘comfort women’ dispute

Reuters, Bloomberg

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye agreed Monday to try to resolve as soon as possible the dispute over the “comfort women,” who were forced to work in Japan’s military brothels before and during World War II.

The feud has been a major obstacle to improving ties between two of Washington’s key allies.

Abe announced the agreement after the two leaders held their first formal talks since taking office, as they seek to move beyond a bitter wartime history that has haunted relations.

“Regarding the issue of the comfort women, I believe we should not leave behind difficulties for future generations as we try to build a future-oriented cooperative relationship,” Abe told reporters in Seoul after the talks, which lasted about an hour and 40 minutes.

“It’s the 50th anniversary of the normalization of (Japan-South Korea) ties this year. Keeping that in mind, we’ve agreed to accelerate talks for the earliest possible resolution,” he said.

The meeting was a diplomatic plus for Abe, who had sought two-way talks with Park amid a push by the United States for Japan and South Korea to improve relations in the face of an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea.

Tokyo and Seoul have struggled to find common ground over Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of Korea, particularly regarding the comfort women, or ianfu, as the girls and women, many of them Korean, are euphemistically known in Japan.

“I hope today’s summit will heal the bitter history in a broad sense and be a sincere one and an important opportunity to develop the two countries’ relationship,” Park told Abe at the start of the talks, the first formal two-way meeting between the two since Abe took office in late 2012 and Park in early 2013.

According to a transcript released by Park’s office, Abe said he wants to work with her “to build a new future of forward-looking Japan-Korea relations” and that an exchange of honest opinions by the leaders is needed.

Park said in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun last week that resolving the comfort women dispute is central to better ties with Japan. South Korea says Japanese leaders have repeatedly failed to properly atone for Japan’s wartime atrocities.

On Monday, Park told reporters the issue should be resolved soon, in a way acceptable to the victims and other South Koreans.

Japan says the issue of wartime compensation was legally settled by a 1965 diplomatic treaty and that it stands by the Kono statement — a landmark 1993 apology issued by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. The Abe administration worries that even if it takes fresh steps, South Korea will decline to bring the issue to a close.

Abe also raised the issue of rising tensions in the South China Sea, saying it is a cause for international concern and that Tokyo wants to cooperate with Seoul and Washington to ensure freedom of the seas.

A U.S. warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea last week in the most significant U.S. challenge yet to territorial limits claimed by Beijing.

The Park-Abe meeting followed a summit with them and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Sunday, where they agreed to restore what had been an annual forum to work toward greater economic integration and regional cooperation.

“Japan, China and South Korea are neighbors, and because we are neighbors, there are difficult issues among us,” Abe said at a news conference with Park and Li.

South Korean and Japanese business executives who met last week in Tokyo expressed hope that better ties will improve bilateral trade.

Seoul’s ties with Beijing have tightened while the chilly relationship with Japan has been reflected in trade.

Trade with Japan accounted for 22 percent of South Korea’s total in 1991 but had fallen to 8 percent by 2014.

In contrast, South Korea’s trade with China rose to 21 percent of its total last year from just 4 percent in 1992, when they normalized ties.

“The (trilateral) summit opened the sluice gate for cooperation that’s been shuttered for some time now,” said Lee Ji-yong, who tracks Northeast Asian relations at the government-affiliated Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul. “Economic interests are the imperative that compel these countries to cooperate. Still, history remains an obstacle along with territorial issues.”

The three countries, which collectively make up about a fifth of the world economy, are struggling to maintain the growth that turned them into economic powerhouses as they face slumping demand for their exports. The urgency of mending ties has also increased as North Korea continues to expand its nuclear arsenal and the range of its ballistic missiles, which can reach Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing.

The summit was welcomed in the Chinese media, with Xinhua, China’s official news agency, saying the effort could help put pressure on North Korea to return to the six-nation disarmament talks, which also include the U.S. and Russia.

  • Blue Gum

    Sadly the fault of this dispute lay directly at the feet of Japan’s politicians.
    An apology means nothing when you back-pedal multiple times and even go as far as manipulating history books to claim they were all just whores.

    Japanese politicians need to understand that this piece of history is not something that can be edited to appease the elderly, the world knows what happened so just accept the past so we can pave the way for a better future.

  • Hendrix

    Comfort women? doesnt he mean sex slaves?

  • Hachiko

    the only reason they are able to talk of the fabricated comfort women is that they won the war. those women joined the army voluntarily. did their army not rape and loot? did the americans not rape and loot? the americans are still doing it even today!

    that’s why japan has to become a strong nation again, a nation that stand up for the japanese people. we are lucky to have a strong leader!

  • Hachiko

    korea was part of japan then. the recruitment of comfort woman was not even an international affair.

  • Richard Solomon

    It’s encouraging to hear that Abe and Park want to try to resolve the Comfort Women issue. It’s crucial to realize though that ‘the devil will be in the details.’ Will each side be willing to take substantial, concrete steps to reconcile?

    Eg, will Abe be willing to meet with some of these women, offer them reparations in addition to a solemn apology, set up memorials or a museum to commemorate them, stop efforts to revise history textbooks, etc? Can he face down the powerful criticisms he will face from his nationalist supporters?

    Will Park take steps to stop the anti-Japanese rhetoric in her country? Will she accept and endorse these kinds of gestures as ‘genuine?’

    Would each leader be willing to sacrifice their political careers if need be in order to accomplish this much needed reconciliation?

    Or is this all a lot of talk signifying nothing?

  • Richard Solomon

    It’s encouraging to hear that Abe and Park want to try to resolve the Comfort Women issue. It’s crucial to realize though that ‘the devil will be in the details.’ Will each side be willing to take substantial, concrete steps to reconcile?

    Eg, will Abe be willing to meet with some of these women, offer them reparations in addition to a solemn apology, set up memorials or a museum to commemorate them, stop efforts to revise history textbooks, etc? Can he face down the powerful criticisms he will face from his nationalist supporters?

    Will Park take steps to stop the anti-Japanese rhetoric in her country? Will she accept and endorse these kinds of gestures as ‘genuine?’

    Would each leader be willing to sacrifice their political careers if need be in order to accomplish this much needed reconciliation?

    Or is this all a lot of talk signifying nothing?

  • CaptainAsia

    Nothing wrong with dialog, it is the best diplomacy. It does not mean that either party is right or wrong, perhaps a bit of both on each side. As we all know with the passing of time tales grow longer.
    As for the Koreans they have nothing much to shout out about too much. Just look at what they did in Vietnam with all the Vietnamese women they used as sex slaves during the Vietnam war. Now there countless of thousands of offspring because of these rapes, Raitaihan as they are called in Vietnam. These offspring are looked down upon and marginalized in Vietnamese society. They all live in poverty and have no where left to turn. They are definitely not wanted in Korea.
    If what Japan did with comfort women in Korea was so terrible, then what Korea did in Vietnam was a hundred times worse. As we all know, many so called comfort women in Korea voluntarily entered into prostitution to survive economically. It often meant in those days the choice of having food on the table or not. Some of these so called women were also sold off by Koreans themselves as well as some of them genuinely being forced into service.
    It is easy for nationalists to pick one side of a narrative and focus solely on that. In truth conflict itself is a lot murkier and demands cooler and calmer minds to conclude once and for all the hateful outlooks of past histories.

  • Philosopher

    Even the term “comfort women” is an insulting euphemism for what was done to those women. They were sex slaves.

    While it’s true some – and only a small minority – of the women had been prostitutes beforehand, they were all taken under false pretences or plain kidnapped. Thousands and thousands of them were then raped repeated and kept locked away so they wouldn’t run away. Most women caught in such circumstances would try to survive anyway they could, including escape attempts. Just because some of the evidence for the abductions and enslavement was found to be unreliable, doesn’t negate the vast majority of the testimony. Testimony which rips at your heart and soul. What happened to these women, in the name of the Japanese Imperial Forces, was staggeringly cruel and inhumane. Boka Haram did something comparable recently and the world was outraged. How can people today pretend that what was done decades ago to the sex slaves of the imperial army is any less horrific?

    Upon being caught and faced with a wall of incriminating evidence most criminals will still protest their innocence. Sadly, many of the current crop of politicians identify strongly with the Japanese Imperial Forces and seek to minimise the damage they see a having been done to its name. It is also probably worth considering their behavior in light of Japan’s poor record on gender equality – sitting in 106th place of the WEF 201 gender equality rankings it should be no surprise that a bunch of old Japanese men are denying the testimony of a group of women. Surely, it would be better for all to cut ties with the past, denounce what was done and become new men.

    • CaptainAsia

      You could easily be describing what the Koreans did to countless thousands of Vietnamese women during the Vietnamese war.

      • Philosopher

        If you think it’s so wrong then why aren’t you demanding justice for the former sex slaves?

      • R0ninX3ph

        You’re right, sex slaves are wrong whoever does it. So, moving on, shouldn’t Japan stop referring to them as ‘comfort women’?

      • wrle

        Koreans did not lie about it or try to omit it from history and they weren’t going about setting up military brothels in Vietnam either. If you think its wrong then why wont the Japanese do the same and face up to the comfort women issue?

      • Hendrix

        yep lets deflect the blame , that should do it.

    • T. Wannabe

      As far as I recall, the term comfort women were used firstly by Koreans. Confucius philosophy, I suppose you know it, makes it a taboo to openly talk about sexual issues and there is a socio-cultural background to it. But I agree, some of them or most of them were basically under the condition similar t those of slaves.

    • wrle

      the definition of comfort women only refer to those who were forced into sexual slavery, it does not include willing prostitutes. Historians estimate there were as many as 200 000 mostly from east Asia.

    • Tabula Rasa

      I’ve been wondering about this myself. Whenever the western media reports on rape as a war crime, it’s called a “war crime” except when using the term “comfort women” for Japan. Why?

  • CaptainAsia

    Hey All of you commentators, I am not fighting for Japan. I just read about the history between the two countries and have come to certain conclusions. I of course may be wrong, but when I research the facts start to stack up, sorry if I upset anyone.
    That is why I say dialog is good!
    Now in the meantime we should really look at China and the Philippines, Tibet, India, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei ……….

  • 99Pcent

    I have just been around Japan and Korea. Next week I am off to Australia. Actually we are all really worried about peace between Korea and Japan. Actually those two people have more in common than any of us would understand. If Japan and Korea got together, they would be an unstopable force.

  • 99Pcent

    Both Japan and Korea should talk with each other. That is the best.

  • 99Pcent

    Both Japan and Korea should talk with each other. That is the best.