'Comfort women': Thorny issue that has long divided Japan, South Korea

Former South Korean "comfort woman" Lee Ok-sun speaks as the others react at a special shelter for former "comfort women".
Former South Korean "comfort woman" Lee Ok-sun speaks as the others react at a special shelter for former "comfort women".PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (AFP) - South Korea and Japan reached a landmark agreement Monday (Dec 28) on the emotive and complex issue of wartime sex slaves - euphemistically known as "comfort women" - that has long soured relations.

After talks between the foreign ministers of the two countries in Seoul, Japan announced it was offering a 1-billion yen (S$11.7 million) payment for survivors and an apology from nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Q. Who are the "comfort women"?

A. They were women and young girls mostly from the Korean peninsula, China, the Philippines and what is now Indonesia taken to former Japanese military installations and forced to provide sexual services to officers and soldiers during World War II.

Up to 200,000 women are believed to have been sexually enslaved by Japan during the war, though estimates range higher and lower. Few survive 70 years after the end of the war, with the number in South Korea at 46.

 

Q. Why is the issue important?

A. It has long stood in the way of better relations between Japan and neighbouring countries, particularly South Korea and China.

It has also proven diplomatic headache for the United States, which is seeking to strengthen security cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul, Washington's key Asian security allies.

Q. Why are feelings about it so strong after all these years?

A. A majority of Japanese feel they have atoned enough for the country's wartime aggression and other wrongdoing, including the comfort women issue, after numerous apologies and statements on the war.

But many South Koreans and Chinese say that while Japan has apologised, some of the country's leaders have made statements and taken actions, such as paying homage at the Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo, that raise questions about the sincerity of the official apologies.

Q. How has an agreement finally been reached now?

A. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea President Park Geun-Hye called for a resolution of the issue at a summit last month in Seoul.

There have since been a series of meetings between senior diplomats of the two countries up until Sunday, culminating in the meeting between their foreign ministers on Monday in Seoul.

US pressure on both countries to try and put their differences behind them as well as an apparent shift in public opinion in South Korea, with some media expressing concern over worsening ties with Japan, are seen as factors.

Q. Does this finally close the issue?

A. Japan is optimistic, with Abe telling reporters following a phone call with Park Monday after the deal was announced that it heralded a "new era" in relations. Park told Abe they must "turn this agreement into a priceless opportunity to help restore the honour and dignity of the victims and heal their wounds".

Kan Kimura, an expert on Japan-South Korea relations at Kobe University, however, said success is not certain.

"This is an agreement between the two governments, but not between the two societies. So the next focus is whether the South Korean government can persuade its public to accept the deal," he told AFP.