Year after year, their numbers dwindle. Now, with the average age of former “comfort women” in South Korea approaching 90, time is running out.

The Japanese government has been pressed for years to offer compensation money and extend more sincere apologies to the women, who were forced en masse into Japanese military brothels before and during the war.

But the South Korean government, too, must help settle the issue, Korean affairs experts say, by persuading the citizens’ groups that wield so much influence over the victims to compromise.

“Even if the governments of Japan and South Korea reached an agreement, it would again end up a failure if citizens’ groups oppose a deal and accuse (Seoul) of compromise, branding (the government) as pro-Japan,” said Kizo Ogura, professor at Kyoto University who is an expert on Korean affairs. “This has repeatedly been the case in the past.”

Ogura said that to settle the issue, the Japanese government must provide money and extend a fresh apology to the victims it euphemistically calls the ianfu, whose numbers are in dispute but widely thought to range in the tens of thousands.

If an offer is made and the support groups refuse to persuade the women to accept it, the survivors will likely die without seeing any deal on compensation, he added.

As far as the comfort women issue is concerned, Ogura said, the support groups are more influential than the government in Seoul.

“The South Korean government may seem more powerful (than the citizens’ groups), but in reality, the protesting side” is stronger, he said.

The comfort women issue began drawing widespread public attention in South Korea after its 1987 shift to democracy began.

As the country democratized, citizens’ groups gained more and more power, and many began actively investigating the comfort women issue, experts say.

The most influential group — the Korean Council for the Women Drafted For Military Sexual Slavery by Japan — was established in 1990. It demands that Tokyo admit legal responsibility for comfort women issues, calls for official state compensation, punishment for those responsible and a formal government apology endorsed by the Diet.

Since the early 1990s, the two nations have seen the comfort women issue become an increasingly divisive. In 1993, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono for the first time admitted the responsibility of the Imperial Japanese military and other authorities in recruiting women against their will and forcing them to work at comfort stations set up by the military.

Two years later in 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s administration set up the private Asian Women’s Fund to provide “atonement money” to former comfort women from all nations.

The victims received about ¥2 million in donations from private Japanese citizens and up to ¥3 million in “medical and welfare support” from the government, together with a letter of formal apology signed by four successive prime ministers from 1996 to 2001, including Ryutaro Hashimoto, Keizo Obuchi, Yoshiro Mori and Junichiro Koizumi.

Despite those efforts, the now-defunct fund came under harsh criticism by South Korean citizens’ groups because Japan refused to admit any legal responsibility for the compensation, and because no personal or public apology had been issued by any of Japan’s top leaders.

According to the government, a total of 61 of the known South Korean victims accepted the fund’s offer — less than 30 percent of the 207 who had been officially recognized by Seoul as of 2002. Also, 211 Filipinos, 79 Dutch and 13 Taiwanese accepted the fund’s offer, media reports said.

Given their advanced age, both countries should prioritize the issue, said Masao Okonogi, a professor emeritus at Keio University who is a noted expert on Korean affairs. Otherwise, Japan will forever be accused of not working to solve the issue, he said.

Okonogi said one possible way to end the stalemate is to establish another semi-public, semi-private fund, this time together with Seoul, in combination with a fresh apology and offer of financial support.

“(Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe has said he upholds the Kono statement, so I guess (offering another apology) would not be that difficult,” he said.

Both Okonogi and Ogura said they believe ties between the two Asian powers will improve after the summer, when Abe is to issue a statement to mark the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end.

Japanese diplomats note that they have already seen signs that Seoul is making efforts to improve the relationship. Domestic criticism that she may have put too much emphasis on historical issues in dealing with Japan may force South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s hand anyway.

Despite the passage of more than two years since their inaugurations, Park and Abe have yet to hold a summit, with the South Korean leader citing historical issues — including comfort women — in her refusal to see Abe. Now, Japan, China and South Korea are attempting to arrange a trilateral summit that has been suspended for three years because of Japan’s strained ties with its two neighbors over separate historical and territorial issues.

Such a meeting could happen by the end of this year, Okonogi said. If it does, Abe and Park will have no choice but to hold a bilateral meeting there, a move that would help achieve a thaw, he said.

In light of China and its rapid economic development, South Korea has shifted diplomatic and economic strategy de-emphasize Tokyo and focus more on Beijing.

In 2003, Beijing overtook Tokyo as Seoul’s No. 2 trading partner. The following year, China became the world’s biggest economy, topping Japan’s ally, the United Sates.

In the meantime, South Korea’s economic dependency on Japan has declined greatly over the past decade. In near parallel with the decline of Japan’s economic presence in South Korea, Seoul has begun taking an increasingly tough diplomatic stance against Tokyo, experts say.

Okonogi said that even though the environment has changed, they still share the same basic values of democracy and market economy. What’s more, both countries are in similar situations, standing between a growing U.S.-China rivalry, he said.

“It’s important to see that we share interests, and there could be strategic cooperation in the future as well,” Okonogi said.

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