Obama speaks on ‘comfort women,’ seeks better Japan-S. Korea ties

SEOUL — U.S. President Barack Obama broke his silence on a wartime history-related issue that has strained ties between Japan and South Korea at the end of his tour of the two U.S. allies in East Asia.

Mentioning the pain of women who were forced to work at Japanese military brothels before and during World War II, Obama urged Prime Minister Abe for the first time to deal with the “comfort women” issue, as it is euphemistically called, an emotional topic in South Korea.

The remarks were in line with the purpose of his trip — to cement ties with Japan and South Korea and encourage them to improve dialogue, including on issues which are sources of conflict, according to U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

Obama kept silent on history-related issues when he attended a joint press conference with Abe in Tokyo on April 24.

Abe said a few words about his visit in December to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which honors convicted World War II criminals, another issue which displeased some other Asian countries which suffered under Japan before and during World War II, such as South Korea and China.

Obama, standing next to Abe at the podium at the opulent Akasaka Palace in downtown Tokyo, made no comment on the issue of Abe’s visit to the Tokyo shrine and appeared dispassionate about Abe’s rhetoric.

But a day later in Seoul, Obama called the treatment of “comfort women” a “terrible and egregious” violation of human rights in what is believed to be his first detailed comments on the long-standing issue between Japan and South Korea.

Many of the victims were from the Korean Peninsula, which was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.

Obama also described the treatment of such women as “shocking” and called for further investigation of the issue, at a joint press conference with South Korean President Park Geun Hye following their summit.

Japan says all issues of compensation arising from its rule of the peninsula were settled by a 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral relations with South Korea. But some victims have demanded Japan recognize its legal responsibility for what happened and separately compensate them.

Obama called Abe to take actions aimed at settling the “comfort women” issue so people in future generations in Japan and South Korea can forge closer ties in a forward-looking manner.

Park said many of the victims had already died and there are only 55 survivors. “I really look forward to efforts made by the Japanese side,” she said.

In Tokyo, the Japanese government struck a cautious note about immediately responding to Obama’s remarks on the “comfort women” issue.

A senior official of the Japanese government played down a view that Obama’s comments could trigger new types of diplomatic controversy with Seoul.

It seems Obama was mindful of the public sentiment in South Korea on the “comfort women” issue when he made the remarks in the first visit to Seoul since Park took office last year, the Japanese official said on condition of anonymity.

Katsunobu Kato, deputy chief Cabinet secretary, told a TV program that the prime minister has already expressed his sorrow for the experience of the victims and any matters related to Obama’s remarks “should not develop into a (fresh) political and diplomatic issue.”

The issue of so-called “comfort women” has stirred various debates in Japan and some conservatives, who comprise one of Abe’s power bases, have challenged a 1993 government apology statement which mentioned the involvement of the old Japanese military.

But Abe has said his government will stick to the statement, with senior officials of Japan and South Korea having held bilateral talks on the “comfort women” issues in April.

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