JAPANESE and South Korean leaders announced Monday that the decades-long impasse over Japan’s “comfort women” forced to work in Japanese brothels before and during WWII had been resolved.
Japan has apologised and will pay 1bn yen ($8.3m) to the South Korean government to provide for the psychological and physical needs of the 46 surviving South Korean women.
The agreement includes a pledge from South Korea to halt criticism of Japan over the issue in the international community, and “finally and irreversibly” settle what an earlier 1995 Japanese apology and welfare plan did not.
The agreement was reached by Japanese Foreign Ministor Fumio Kishida and his counterpart Yun Byung-se in Seoul.
Mr. Kishida said in a statement, “The issue of comfort women, with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time, was a grave affront to the honour and dignity of large numbers of women, and the government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective.”
The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe then phoned South Korean President Park Geun-hye to repeat the apology offered by Mr Kishida.
“Japan and South Korea are now entering a new era,” Mr Abe told reporters afterwards. “We should not drag this problem into the next generation.”
Ms Park issued a separate statement, saying a deal had been urgently needed – given the advanced age of most of the victims.
“Nine died this year alone,” she said. “I hope the mental pains of the elderly comfort women will be eased.”
It is believed that up to 200,000 women were used as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during WWII.
Many of these were Korean and the survivors in Korea have asked for both a formal apology addressed to them and direct compensation.
Leon Yong-soo, an 88-year-old, former comfort woman, told the BBC:
“I wonder whether the talks took place with the victims really in mind. We’re not after the money. If the Japanese committed their sins, they should offer direct official government compensation.”
Hiroka Shoji , an east Asia researcher at Amnesty International, said: “Today’s agreement must not mark the end of the road in securing justice for the hundreds of thousands [of] women who suffered due to Japan’s military sexual slavery system.
“The women were missing from the negotiation table and they must not be sold short in a deal that is more about political expediency than justice. Until the women get the full and unreserved apology from the Japanese government for the crimes committed against them, the fight for justice goes on.”
However it is hoped the accord will reverse the decades of distrust between the nations.
The Associated Press said the accord “represents a shift for Tokyo’s conservative government and a new willingness to compromise by previously wary Seoul.”
“If we brushed aside this deal, the comfort women issue would remain unresolved forever,” said Lee Won Deog, director of Institute of Japanese Studies at Seoul’s Kookmin University. “Elderly women would die one by one; South Korea and Japan would engage in history wars and find it harder to improve ties.”