Japan, South Korea remain apart over ‘comfort women’ issue

SEOUL (Kyodo) — Japan and South Korea failed to narrow differences during a meeting April 16 on the issue of Korean women forced to serve at brothels for the wartime Japanese military.

“It was a very meaningful consultation in that we were able to deepen understanding on each other’s position and situation,” Junichi Ihara, director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau of the Foreign Ministry, told reporters after meeting in Seoul with Lee Sang Deok, director general of the Northeast Asian Affairs Bureau of South Korea’s Foreign Ministry.

Ihara did not reveal the details of the meeting that exclusively focused on the issue of “comfort women” but said he and Lee agreed to hold the next round of talks in May in Tokyo.

Japan is believed to have reiterated its position that all compensation issues were settled under a 1965 bilateral treaty that normalized diplomatic ties. Despite that official position, Japan provided money in a form of atonement to former comfort women through the Asian Women’s Fund, a pool of private donations set up at Tokyo’s initiative in 1995 and run through 2007.

South Korea has said Japan should settle the issue “effectively and in a way that is agreeable to the living victims,” including through an apology and compensation, according to Yonhap News Agency.

There are 55 known former South Korean comfort women survivors, Yonhap said.

“Both sides shared the opinion that this issue should be settled speedily in order to remove obstacles in South Korea-Japan relations,” a South Korean Foreign Ministry official was quoted as saying after the April 16 meeting.

The meeting was part of efforts to improve bilateral relations ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to the two countries, Malaysia and the Philippines starting next week.

The United States has called for improved ties between its two key allies in Asia before Obama visits the region. Japan hopes a series of talks will lay the groundwork for a summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun Hye.

Referring to the next round of talks, Ihara said the two countries “need to exchange views on various issues,” indicating Japan wants to take up issues such as North Korea, a dispute over a pair of Seoul-held but Tokyo-claimed islets in the Sea of Japan, along with the comfort women issue.

Japan has sounded out South Korea about putting an end this year to the comfort women issue before the two countries mark the 50th anniversary next year of the normalization of diplomatic relations, according to Japanese government officials.

Japan will not respond to calls for compensation by former comfort women but is considering measures such as an official apology and funding for the women, the officials said.

Last month, Abe held a trilateral summit with Park and Obama in the Netherlands after Park welcomed Abe’s announcement that his government will not revise a 1993 apology over the comfort women.

The so-called Kono statement, issued by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, acknowledged for the first time the involvement of the military and the use of coercion in recruiting women to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.

But recently, some conservative Japanese politicians have called for it to be revised, citing insufficient evidence.

Abe and Park have not held bilateral talks since they came to power in December 2012 and February last year, respectively, amid tensions over perceptions of history and the territorial dispute.

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