An apology to surviving “comfort women” by the Japanese ambassador as well as humanitarian measures funded by Japan were proposed in 2012, by the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, to heal the long-standing dispute with South Korea over the issue that had recently reignited, former senior officials of both countries revealed Sunday.
The term comfort women is a euphemism used to refer to women who provided sex, including those who did so against their will, for Japanese troops before and during World War II.
South Korea has long called on Japan to acknowledge state responsibility for the wartime system. Tokyo argued at the time that the proposal amounted to an admission of “public responsibility” for the issue.
A former senior South Korean official said Seoul had countered that it would accept the deal even if Tokyo did not explicitly admit state responsibility, provided it did not deny such responsibility.
Ultimately, however, the two sides were unable to bridge their differences.
A visit by then-President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea to a pair of islets subject to a dispute between the two sides in August of that year, which drew an angry response from Japan, effectively nixed any chance of the proposal moving forward. The South Korean-controlled islets in the Sea of Japan are known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea.
At the end of 2015, the government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the South Korean administration of then-President Park Geun-hye reached a landmark agreement to “finally and irreversibly” settle the comfort women issue.
The deal included creation of a foundation that was put in charge of handing out cash payments to the victims and their families from a ¥1 billion (about $8.8 million) fund provided by Japan.
However, there was no in-person apology from a representative of the Japanese government to the victims.
According to an official with Japan’s Foreign Ministry, Vice Foreign Minister Kenichiro Sasae visited South Korea in March 2012 and sought a resolution to the contentious issue with a three-pronged proposal.
Specifically, he proposed a Japanese government-funded humanitarian measure, individual apologies to the victims by the Japanese ambassador, and an apology byNoda to Lee. The humanitarian measure would have been announced at a summit.
At the same time, Sasae communicated that there was no change in Tokyo’s official position that the matter of compensation for the women was settled under the 1965 treaty that normalized relations. For the humanitarian measure, construction of a monument to the women rather than payments to the victims was planned.
On April 20 of that year, Tsuyoshi Saito, who was deputy chief Cabinet secretary and involved in talks with Seoul, held negotiations on the proposal at the South Korean presidential office with Chun Yung-woo, Lee’s national security adviser.
Saito said he sought understanding that the appropriation from the Japanese government and Noda’s apology would together amount to “an admission of public responsibility,” but that received no reply.
For his part, Chun said that Seoul proposed accepting the offer providing Tokyo agreed to the condition of not denying that the government-funded assistance was tantamount to recognition of state responsibility.
“The president also signed off on this policy, but Mr. Saito rejected it,” Chun said.
Saito insists that there was “no such condition,” and points out that the failure to reach a deal led to the deterioration of the relationship.
Chun echoed that view, saying, “If an agreement had been reached, the president’s trip to Dokdo would not have gone ahead.”