SEOUL • South Korea and Japan reached a landmark deal yesterday on their dispute over wartime sex slaves, called "comfort women", that has soured ties for decades.
Japan offered a "heartfelt apology" and a 1 billion yen (S$11.7 million) payment to Korean women forced into Japanese military brothels during World War II.
Both sides also agreed to avoid criticism of each other on the international stage over the issue.
The US allies "will welcome a new era", Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo after speaking by phone with South Korean President Park Geun Hye.
The fate of the 46 surviving South Korean "comfort women" is a hugely emotional issue in South Korea. Historians say 50,000 to 200,000 women - many of them Korean - served in Japan's brothels.
Japan apologised in 1993 and set up a compensation fund that was rejected by some victims because it was privately funded.
The deal would be "final and irreversible" if Japan fulfils its responsibilities, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said after talks in Seoul with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida. "Prime Minister Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women," Mr Kishida said.
Resolving the issue might give both leaders a political boost as well as help to reinvigorate trade. Improved ties would also be welcomed by the United States as it deals with a rising China and nuclear-armed North Korea.
"With today's agreement, South Korea and Japan passed the critical point in their row," said Sejong Institute researcher Jin Chang Soo in South Korea.
But Professor Kan Kimura, an expert on Japan-South Korea ties at Japan's Kobe University, said: "The next focus is whether the South Korean government can persuade its public to accept the deal."
Former sex slave Lee Yong Soo, 88, said: "What we have been demanding is legal compensation from Japan."
Welcoming the deal, Singapore said: "The resolution of these issues will help people in both countries move forward to build trust and reconciliation. This will not only benefit Japan and the ROK, but will also enhance regional peace, stability and cooperation," a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said, referring to South Korea, in response to media queries.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG
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A brief history of Japan's comfort women controversy: Go to http://str.sg/Z4vx