SEOUL – The foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea announced an agreement Monday to resolve the decades-long impasse over Korean females who were forced into brothels run by the Imperial Japanese military before and during World War II.
Later in the day, following the foreign ministers’ talks, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe telephoned President Park Geun-hye and offered Japan’s “sincere apology and remorse” over the issue.
Abe told reporters in Tokyo after the phone call that the landmark agreement heralds a “new era” in relations between the two countries.
“We were able to reach a final and irreversible resolution in the year marking the 70th anniversary” of the end of World War II and the end of Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula, Abe said in remarks shown live on NHK.
“We cannot force our children, grandchildren and children of our future generations to shoulder a fate by which they have to keep apologizing,” he said.
At a joint news conference in Seoul earlier, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that Abe would be offering an apology to the former “comfort women” and that Tokyo will finance a ¥1 billion aid fund for the aging survivors that is to be set up by South Korea.
Kishida and his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, also said the two countries confirmed that the issue will be resolved once and for all.
“On the premise that the steps (agreed on) will be implemented steadily, our governments will confirm that the comfort women issue will be settled in a final and irreversible manner,” Kishida said.
Yun said that Seoul considers the agreement “final and irreversible,” as long as Japan faithfully follows through on its promises.
Kishida said Abe will extend a sincere apology and express remorse to the victims and that the Japanese government recognizes its responsibility over the issue.
The issue of the former sex slaves, which Japan euphemistically calls the ianfu, or comfort women, is the biggest source of diplomatic friction between Seoul and Tokyo. The nations, both staunch U.S. allies, have seen animosity rise since Abe’s inauguration in 2012.
The agreement would remove what Park has described as “the biggest obstacle to efforts to improve bilateral relations,” as time runs out on 2015, which marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties.
Japan also wants South Korea to remove a statue of a girl symbolizing the victims that was installed by a citizens’ group in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Yun stopped short of saying that would happen but said the government will continue talks on the matter with the organizations involved, in an apparent reference to the citizens’ group.
The meeting came after the United States stepped up pressure on its key Asian allies to mend ties in the face of an increasingly assertive China and nuclear-armed North Korea.
Better relations between South Korea and Japan are a priority for Washington. The two countries together host about 80,000 U.S. troops and are members of the now-stalled six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in return for aid.
To make the deal irreversible, Tokyo and Seoul are considering confirming it in a joint statement that Abe and Park would issue in their next talks, possibly in the U.S., according to sources familiar with bilateral relations.
South Korea has demanded that Japan make an official apology and offer reparations with recognition of legal responsibility.
Japan has maintained that the issue was legally settled under a 1965 basic treaty with South Korea and an attached agreement, which states issues regarding property and claims between the two countries are “settled completely and finally.”
The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.
Given its position, Japan has no plans to acknowledge legal responsibility and pay reparations or government compensation. Instead, it is advocating the formation of the government-backed fund from a humanitarian perspective, the sources said.
The fund would effectively expand a little-known state-run follow-up program to the now-defunct Asian Women’s Fund, which was a pool of private donations that was set up at Tokyo’s initiative in 1995 and lasted through 2007.
The government allocated ¥15 million in fiscal 2015 to the program, which finances periodic visits to the victims’ homes and provides medical and other welfare assistance.
Citing the gap between their positions, experts predict the name of the new fund will become a contentious issue as well. Tokyo favors the word “atonement,” but Seoul prefers “compensation.”
“An act by a government using the state budget can be interpreted as an act accompanied by legal responsibility,” Lee Won-deok, director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, was quoted as saying in the weekend edition of the Korea Joongang Daily.
“If the money is not clearly labeled as reparations, the Japanese government can explain to rightists in the country that it was providing humanitarian assistance to the victims because there was a shortcoming after the 1965 settlement,” Lee said. “A gray area can be created to allow Seoul and Tokyo to interpret the measure the way each needs.”