South Korean officials seek support of 'comfort women' for landmark deal

Former South Korean "comfort woman" Lee Yong Soo (second left) protesting during South Korean First Vice-Foreign Minister Lim Sung Nam's visit to a shelter for the women in Seoul on Dec 29, 2015.
Former South Korean "comfort woman" Lee Yong Soo (second left) protesting during South Korean First Vice-Foreign Minister Lim Sung Nam's visit to a shelter for the women in Seoul on Dec 29, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean officials are to meet former wartime sex slaves on Tuesday (Dec 29) to seek their support for a landmark deal with Japan, after criticism it does not properly atone for the treatment of women forced into World War II army brothels.

Japan offered a "heartfelt apology" and a one-billion yen (S$11.7 million) payment to the surviving Korean women forced into sexual slavery, under the agreement Seoul and Tokyo described as "final and irreversible".

The fate of the 46 surviving South Korean "comfort women" - the euphemism by which they are known - is a hugely emotional issue in the South and a source of long-running distrust that has marred relations with Japan for decades.

 
 

Officials of both nations hailed the deal as a major breakthrough, but South Korean media and the women themselves gave a mixed reaction, particularly taking issue with Tokyo's refusal to take formal legal responsibility.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said on Monday the one-billion-won payment was aimed at "restoring the women's dignity" but was not an official compensation.

"There is a clear difference between just a payment and official compensation paid as a result of a crime," Ms Lee Yong Soo, one of the victims, said on Monday.

"I will completely ignore the agreement."

South Korean President Park Geun Hye called for "understanding by the public and the victims" about the deal.

The Foreign Ministry said two vice-ministers would visit two comfort women shelters later on Tuesday to explain the terms and win the victims' support - a step which will be key to securing the approval of the nation.

Six civic groups including those running the shelters have slammed the agreement as "humiliating" and objected to Seoul's promise to refrain from criticising Japan over the issue in international forums including the United Nations.

"Our longstanding wish was... clarifying legal responsibility over this crime committed by the Japanese government so that such a tragedy will never happen again," they said in a joint statement.

"The latest agreement appears to be nothing but a diplomatic collusion that betrayed such wishes of the victims."

Up to 200,000 women in Asia, many of them Korean, 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) in grants or loans to Korea, which it ruled from 1910-1945.

But South Korea has said the treaty did not cover compensation for victims of wartime crimes such as sex slavery, and did not absolve the Japanese government of legal responsibility.

South Korea's top-selling daily, the conservative Chosun Ilbo, hailed Monday's agreement as a "positive" development achieved by compromises on both sides, but also noted its limits.

"The deal made Japan admit its responsibility only indirectly and allowed it to avoid formal, legal responsibility," it said in an editorial, urging more efforts to win support from the victims.

Another major daily JoongAng Ilbo also welcomed the agreement but added that Seoul was faced with the daunting challenge of winning support from many South Koreans, who harbour deep-rooted distrust of Japan.

"What we worry about is public reaction to the terms we promised to Japan... all of which are highly volatile issues," it said in an editorial.

That fear was also expressed in Japan on Tuesday, though overall reaction to the agreement by media and opposition political parties was broadly positive.

Seoul, under the condition that Tokyo carries out its promises, vowed to try to relocate a statue symbolising comfort women, which currently stands in front of the Japanese Embassy.

The promise drew heavy criticism from civic groups, which described the potential relocation as "unimaginable".

The Nikkei, Japan's top business daily, called the removal of the statue one of the "flash points" left over from the deal. If it is not implemented, "the backlash from the Japanese side would be unavoidable", it said in a front-page column.