South Korea comfort women protest against Japan deal

Former "comfort women" Lee Yong Soo (right) and Gil Won Ok shout slogans during an anti-Japanese rally.
Former "comfort women" Lee Yong Soo (right) and Gil Won Ok shout slogans during an anti-Japanese rally.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean women forced into wartime sexual slavery and hundreds of supporters held a rally on Wednesday against a "humiliating" deal with Japan designed to settle the issue, and vowed to keep fighting for justice.

Japan offered an apology and a one-billion yen (S$11.74 million) payment on Monday (Dec 28) to the 46 surviving South Korean women, under an agreement which both nations described as "final and irreversible". The plight of so-called "comfort women" forced into World War II army brothels is a hugely emotional issue that has for decades marred ties with Japan, which ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

The landmark deal has met with an angry reaction from victims and activists, who took issue with Tokyo's refusal to accept formal legal responsibility.

Japan said the one-billion-yen payment was aimed at "restoring the women's dignity" but was not official compensation.

"The fight is still on," survivor Lee Yong Soo said at the protest in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, attended by one other victim and about 250 protesters.

Gatherings have been held weekly there for years, demanding Japan's formal apology and compensation.

"We will continue to fight to make Japan take formal, legal responsibility and apology so that victims who have already perished will have justice," 88-year-old Lee added.

The rally was sombre as the lives of nine former sex slaves who died this year were commemorated, but later turned angry with protesters shouting slogans denouncing Japan and its prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Protesters held portraits of the late victims and waved banners condemning the deal, particularly Seoul's pledge to remove a statue symbolising the victims which stands in front of the embassy.

Some chanted slogans of "Cancel the humiliating agreement!" and waved banners that read: "Say no to relocation of the statue!".

South Korea's government must now win public support for the deal, which has had a mixed reception with the media also taking issue with the terms.

The handful of comfort women who have spoken about the agreement have mostly rejected it, but the views of the others are not known.

However, a recent poll showed 66 per cent of South Koreans opposed the relocation of the statue.

Up to 200,000 women in Asia, many of them Koreans, are estimated to have been systematically forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II.

Japan has long maintained that the dispute was settled in a 1965 agreement which saw Tokyo establish diplomatic ties and make a payment of US$800 million (S$1.13 billion) to Korea.

But Seoul has said the treaty did not cover compensation for victims of wartime crimes and did not absolve Tokyo of responsibility.

The compromise agreement also drew a mixed reaction in Japan, with some far-right activists and newspapers criticising Abe for offering the apology.

There has been an angry reception in Beijing, which wields popular anger over Japan's wartime atrocities in China - including the use of Chinese "comfort women" - as a tool against its regional rival Tokyo.

Chinese state media slammed the long-awaited mea culpa as insincere and insufficient.