Japan’s top diplomat to visit South Korea for ‘comfort women’ talks

SEOUL  (AFP) – South Korea and Japan’s foreign ministers will meet next week to settle a bitter row over a Japanese wartime brothel system which has strained bilateral ties, officials said Friday (Dec 25).

The one-day meeting between South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se and his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, will be held in Seoul on Monday (Dec 28), Yun’s office said.

The ministers are to discuss “matters of mutual concern” such as the issue of women systematically forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II, it said.

In Tokyo, Kishida told reporters that he was prepared to “work hard” to settle the dispute over “comfort women”, a day after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered him to visit Seoul to seek a breakthrough.

Abe aims for a resolution of the lingering issue that has hammered bilateral ties between the two East Asian US allies.

“I’m ready to be improvisational and work hard over the Japan-South Korea relationship and the comfort women issue,” Kishida said.

He said his visit is “part of efforts towards an early settlement of (bilateral issues) that our leaders agreed” in the summit last month between Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye.

Japan issued a landmark 1993 statement that expressed “sincere apologies and remorse” to the women “who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women”.

But it has long maintained that the dispute was settled in a 1965 normalisation agreement with South Korea, which saw Tokyo make a total payment of US$800 million (S$1,124)  in grants or loans to its former colony.

Seoul is demanding a fresh formal apology and compensation for the Korean women forced to serve as wartime sex slaves in Japanese military army brothels.

The fate of the comfort women is a hugely emotional issue in South Korea and a source of much of the distrust that has marred relations between Seoul and Tokyo for decades.

However, Abe and Park have recently demonstrated their willingness to resolve the row after their first bilateral summit meeting last month and diplomats from the two countries have since met to seek a solution.

Before last month’s meeting in Seoul, Park had rebuffed all previous bilateral summit proposals, arguing that Tokyo had yet to properly atone for its wartime past and 1910-45 colonial rule.

The acquittal last week in South Korea of a Japanese journalist who had been prosecuted for allegedly defaming Park in a column is also seen as having cleared another obstacle that had stood in the way of improved relations.