Tokyo’s prolonged estrangement from Seoul seemed closer to resolution Friday as Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida announced upcoming talks with his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se to settle a dispute over women and girls who were forced to work at Japanese wartime military brothels.
“The ‘comfort women’ issue is very difficult to deal with, but I will try my utmost,” Kishida told reporters ahead of his planned one-day talks with Yun in the South Korean capital on Monday.
“Comfort women” is how Japan refers to the mainly East Asian women who were lured or coerced into service at brothels for the Imperial Japanese military during the 1930s and 40s.
In 1995, Japan set up a government-linked fund for survivors using private donations to provide what was termed “atonement money.” But many survivors in South Korea rejected the cash, demanding a formal, face-to face apology from top Japanese leaders as well.
The South Korean government is now demanding that the women’s grievances be settled once and for all.
For Japan, the focus of the talks will be whether Seoul is ready to commit to a “final and irreversible solution,” high-ranking Japanese officials said. This would be one that guarantees no further eruption of grievance over what happened so many decades ago.
In the past, the two governments agreed to cease raising questions of history in bilateral relations, including those related to comfort women.
But, as Japan sees it, Seoul has repeatedly reneged on that and has issued demands for further action.
“The South Korean government has always changed its attitude after seeing the emotional reactions of its people,” one of the high-ranking Japanese officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Japan has maintained the same thing: That we need to settle the (comfort women) issue in a final and irreversible way,” the official said.
On Nov. 2, Abe and South Korean president Park Geun-hye held their first one-on-one summit, agreeing to speed up talks on a final settlement of the comfort women issue.
Government sources say one demand raised in earlier talks was the removal of a statue of a girl symbolizing the young victims that stands outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
In return, Tokyo is reportedly considering increasing the size of the medical and welfare support available to former comfort women, a “follow-up project” to the now-defunct Asian Women’s Fund.
It may be possible also for Abe to release a letter of apology to former comfort women, a senior Japanese official has suggested.
From 1996 through 2001, a letter of apology signed by the prime minister of the day — Ryutaro Hashimoto, Keizo Obuchi, Yoshiro Mori or Junichiro Koizumi — was sent to women who agreed to accept money from the government-linked fund, which was set up in 1995.
It may be acceptable for Abe to do “what past prime ministers have done,” the official said.
Still, Tokyo will stop short of admitting legal responsibility for compensating the women’s suffering, Japanese officials said.
Numerous women were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers at wartime military brothels, but Tokyo has not admitted legal responsibility because private-sector brokers, not the government, are believed to have been the main recruiters.
In addition, Tokyo has maintained that all compensation issues relating to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula were settled with the 1965 Japan-South Korea basic treaty and an attached agreement, which literally stipulates that compensation “is settled completely and finally.”
Under the treaty, Tokyo promised to extend to Seoul economic cooperation to the tune of $300 million in grants and $200 million in government credit.
During a news conference Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo still considers that all questions of compensation were settled with the 1965 treaty.
“Of course our stance hasn’t changed,” he said.
The comfort women issue flared up for the first time in the 1990s, when a number of South Korean women went public about their ordeal.
In 1995, Japan set up the semi-governmental Asian Women’s Fund, which offered “atonement money” of ¥2 million per victim — made up of donations by Japanese citizens — and between ¥1.2 million and ¥3 million each in “medical or welfare” support from the government.
But many victims refused the money, saying the Japanese government has not admitted legal responsibility and that they want a public apology from senior leaders.
In 2011, the South Korean constitutional court ruled it was unconstitutional that the South Korean government had failed to take concrete actions on the comfort women issue.
And as public demands grew, the South Korean government began demanding a “sincere solution” from the Japanese government.
Staff writer Mizuho Aoki contributed to this report.