SEOUL – South Korean officials met former wartime “comfort women” Tuesday to seek support for a landmark deal with Japan, amid criticism Tokyo has not fully atoned for its treatment of the women forced into the brothels run by the Imperial Japanese military before and during World War II.
Japan on Monday offered a “sincere apology” and a ¥1 billion aid fund for the aging survivors that is to be set up by South Korea, under an agreement which both sides described as “final and irreversible.”
The plight of the women has been a hugely emotional issue in South Korea and has marred relations with Japan for decades.
Officials of both nations hailed the deal as a breakthrough. But South Korean media and the women themselves had a mixed response, taking issue particularly with Tokyo’s refusal to accept formal legal responsibility.
Seoul’s vice foreign ministers visited two comfort women shelters Tuesday to seek the victims’ support — a step that will be key to securing popular approval.
But some of the women expressed anger, accusing the officials of complacency and of hastily wrapping up negotiations.
“The matter has not been settled. We didn’t fight for all these years to see the result like this,” frail survivor Kim Bok-Dong, 89, told Vice Minister Lim Sung-nam at a Seoul shelter in televised comments.
The long-time campaigner was lured to leave her village at age 14 with a promise of a factory job, and was forced to serve in military brothels in China and Southeast Asia.
Lim said the government had tried its best to achieve some form of justice — albeit compromised — “before too late” as most victims are at an advanced age.
Observers said it is not yet known how many surviving comfort women will approve of the deal, and that the accord may become a major issue dividing public opinion in South Korea.
On Monday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye issued a statement to the nation seeking the understanding of the victims and the public at large for the agreement.
“As for Japan’s historical wrongdoings, I ask you victims and the people to understand the agreement in view of efforts to improve relations between South Korea and Japan and from a broader perspective,” the message said.
“The agreement has resulted from utmost efforts made to work out an agreement as quickly as possible under the situation in which only 46 victims are alive after nine died this year,” she said in the “message to the people” posted on the website of the presidential office.
“Through the agreement, sufferings of the victims should be clearly remembered in the hearts of our descendants and a similar occurrence should never be repeated in our history,” Park added.
The ruling Saenuri Party welcomed the agreement, praising Tokyo’s explicit expression of responsibility.
In stark contrast, the leading opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy criticized Japan for failing to take responsibility and stressed that the agreement is unacceptable.
The party claimed that Park deviated from her basic promise to resolve the issue in a way acceptable for both the victims and the public.