In a summit in Kyoto on Sunday with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak unexpectedly made a specific comment on the issue of Korean women who were forced to provide sex to members of the Imperial Japanese armed forces during the war years.

Mr. Lee urged Mr. Noda to have “true courage” to give priority to solving the issue and to make a “political decision” on the matter. He said the issue constitutes an “obstacle” in the bilateral relations. According to the South Korean presidential office, some 40 minutes were devoted to the issue in the 60-minute meeting.

Mr. Lee’s attitude is apparently influenced by recent political developments in his country. But it serves as a reminder to the Japanese government that bilateral historical issues dating back to Japan’s colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula can be rekindled at any time. Japan cannot be too careful in dealing with the issues.

South Korea’s constitutional court ruled in August that it is unconstitutional for the government not to make an effort to solve the issue of compensation for former sex slaves. This has stimulated calls in South Korea for addressing the issue. On Dec. 14, a group supporting former sex slaves placed a bronze statue of a teenage girl symbolizing such women in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Mr. Lee must have found it difficult to ignore public sentiment on the issue.

Mr. Noda reiterated Japan’s position that issues concerning the right to make a claim were solved by a 1965 Japan-South Korea treaty. He also called for removal of the statue. Mr. Lee said that a “second and third statue would be enacted” unless Japan takes “sincere” measures. In 1995, Japan did set up the Asian Women’s Fund to offer money with written apologies by prime ministers to former sex slaves. But it was criticized as an attempt to avoid official compensation, and was dissolved in 2007.

Mr. Noda proposed that efforts be made to solve the issue from a “humanitarian viewpoint.”

Japan should try to find ways to help restore the dignity of former sex slaves, who are getting old, without bending its legal position. It is important that Japan do so with sincerity. Both Tokyo and Seoul should prevent the issue from fanning nationalism, which could harm bilateral ties, in their respective countries.

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