Posted : 2015-12-28 17:11
Updated : 2015-12-28 21:27

Korea, Japan reach deal over sex slavery

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, right, and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida shake hands during a joint press conference at the ministry in Seoul, Monday, after the two nations reached a deal to resolve the issue of Korean "comfort women." / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk

Tokyo falls short of accepting legal responsibility

By Yi Whan-woo

Korea and Japan reached a historic agreement Monday, to resolve disputes over Tokyo's sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II.

The accord signed by the foreign ministers of the two countries came almost 23 years after victims of wartime sexual slavery held their first rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, demanding an apology and compensation. Since then, a rally has been held every Wednesday at the same site, and is now the world's longest-running protest.

Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan "fully recognizes its responsibility" for its state-perpetrated sex crimes.

Following a 70-minute meeting with Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, Kishida also said Abe offered a "heartfelt" apology for the "comfort women," a euphemism for those who were coerced into sexual servitude before and during the war.

"The issues regarding comfort women involving the Japanese military left a scar on the honor and dignity of the victimized women," Kishida said during a press conference at Seoul's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "And the Prime Minister apologizes and expresses remorse from the bottom of his heart."

He added that Japan will offer 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) from its national budget to set up a foundation in Seoul and extend aid to surviving victims of wartime sex slavery in cooperation with the Korean government.

President Park Geun-hye, while talking with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by telephone later in the day, said the agreement will provide an opportunity to "build mutual trust and open a new stage in bilateral relations," according to Cheong Wa Dae.

Abe vowed to help survivors to retrieve their honor and dignity by faithfully carrying out the agreement, it said.

The two countries failed to mention whether Tokyo bears legal responsibility for the victims, over which they have differed. Japan claims its legal responsibility was settled under a bilateral treaty signed in 1965 to normalize diplomatic relations, while Korea believes sex slavery was not addressed in the treaty because it is a crime against humanity.

Koreans accounted for the majority of the estimated 200,000 sex slaves. There are 46 survivors in South Korea. Their average age is 89.

"We hope our financial support helps the victims to heal their emotional wounds," Kishida said. "I hope the two nations will enter a new phase in our relations."

Yun agreed, saying "The agreement is final, and irreversible on condition" although he added that he expects Japan to fulfill its promises.

Kishida later met Park during his visit to Cheong Wa Dae before joining an evening reception hosted by Yun.

Issues related to wartime sexual slavery have been the biggest stumbling block for Seoul-Tokyo ties, while hampering the United States to bolster its security alliance with its two East Asian allies.

Park and Abe agreed in November to strike a deal on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the restoration of bilateral ties.

It still is unclear whether Tokyo clearly addressed its legal responsibilities in its apology and state aid for the Korean comfort women in line with Seoul's demands.

In a separate meeting with Japanese correspondents, Kishida said its financial support should not be interpreted as legal compensation.

Meanwhile, Yun said the government will begin discussions with civic activists about the statue of a girl in Seoul that symbolizes the Korean victims.

Kishida said such discussion is understood as a preparatory measure for relocation of the contentious statue following Tokyo's assertions.

The statue, situated across the street from the Japanese Embassy, was placed there by the civic activists in December 2011 to commemorate the former sex slaves. Since then, it has been a touchy subject affecting the sex slavery talks between the two nations.

The deal reached will conclude historical disputes over the comfort women issue which has been one of the biggest stumbling blocks in Seoul-Tokyo relations ever since the two nations restored diplomatic contact in 1965.

The two sides have mainly wrangled over whether Japan is still legally responsible for its wartime sex slavery.

For many years, Japan said all issues concerning its 1910-45 occupation of the Korean Peninsula was resolved "completely and finally" by the 1965 agreement, asserting it fulfilled relevant claims and compensations made by Korea.

Seoul refuted this by saying that the bilateral treaty excludes issues on crimes against humanity, and that Japan must address its liability in its apology and compensation offered to the surviving victims.

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