SEOUL – Although the leaders of Japan and South Korea agreed this week to take prompt action on the issue of Korean women and girls forced into wartime Japanese brothels, it remains uncertain whether they will settle the dispute by year’s end.
Although Seoul says it is hoping for a speedy resolution, the gaps remain wide.
In her first-ever bilateral talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday in Seoul, South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the issue “the biggest obstacle to efforts to improve bilateral ties,” and demanded that it be settled quickly and “in a way that our people can accept.”
Park has urged Japan to deliver a sincere apology and pay compensation to surviving victims, many of whom were from the Korean Peninsula, which was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.
Meanwhile, Japan maintains that the issue of wartime compensation was settled when the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1965. It also points out that the government in 1993 delivered an official apology for the wrongdoings.
That statement, by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, acknowledged for the first time the involvement of the Imperial military and the fact that victims were coerced into providing sex.
On Monday, Abe and Park instructed their governments to speed up talks on resolving the matter.
However, experts say ending the dispute would require a “political decision” by the leaders, as several rounds of talks between senior officials have failed to produce agreement thus far.
“Going forward, South Korea should clearly state its definition of a ‘settlement’ of the issue,” said Lee Won-deok, director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul. He also said Japan should help to move the two countries closer together.
Tokyo argues that South Korea has continually moved the goal posts with regard to issues of history, and that it has failed to control protests against Japan over the issue by groups such as the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. As a result, Tokyo has felt that a “settlement” is increasingly difficult.
In 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung accepted “with sincerity” and expressed his “appreciation” for Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi’s expression of “deep remorse and heartfelt apology” for the damage and suffering to the Korean people caused by Japan’s colonial rule. Kim also vowed to build “a future-oriented relationship based on reconciliation.”
Kim’s words followed the issuance of the 1993 Kono Statement and the provision of money to former Korean comfort women as a form of atonement through the Asian Women’s Fund, a pool of private donations set up on the Japanese government’s initiative from 1995 through 2007.
However, Roh Moo-hyun, who succeeded Kim as president, demanded an apology and remorse from Japan and said compensation was needed.
After the Constitutional Court of Korea ruled in August 2011 that the South Korean government’s failure to negotiate with Japan on the comfort women issue was unconstitutional, President Lee Myung-bak demanded that Japan show sincerity on matter.
Park took office in February 2013, but soon rebuffed Abe’s calls for talks, saying Japan must first take steps to address the comfort women issue.
In 2007, more than 120 former comfort women were still alive in South Korea, but the number has since dropped to 47, with an average age of nearly 90, according to the Yonhap news agency.
After meeting with Park on Monday, Abe said, “I believe we must not leave obstacles to future generations as we try to build a future-oriented cooperative relationship.” This was taken as an indication that he is ready to try to end the dispute once and for all.
A close aide to Abe said that, while Japan maintains its position that the issue has already been settled legally, the two governments are discussing it from a humanitarian perspective, a sign that the prime minister may have raised the possibility of giving greater aid to former Korean comfort women.
On Oct. 21, former Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura said Abe may be considering expanding a government-run follow-up program to the now-defunct Asian Women’s Fund.
In the fiscal 2015 budget, the Foreign Ministry allocated ¥15 million ($124,000) for the program, in which periodic visits are made to recipients’ homes and medical and other welfare assistance is provided.
South Korean scholars predict that despite Monday’s agreement with Abe, Park will not change her stance toward Japan on history issues, given the upcoming general election in the spring and the public’s perception that her father, the late President Park Chung-hee, signed an unfair treaty when he normalized ties with Japan in 1965.
“Her uncompromising attitude is not a mystery and can be understood in the context of her father’s legacy,” said Lee Seong-hyon, an assistant professor of East Asian affairs at Kyushu University in Japan.
“For South Korea’s economy, the senior Park thought it was necessary, but he was domestically criticized for signing an unfair treaty and many Koreans felt humiliated,” Lee said.
“The last thing Park Geun-hye will do is to taint her father’s legacy by appearing to be soft with Japan,” he said.
“This aspect of why Park Geun-hye is so tough with Japan has not been well examined by the Japanese media.”