South Korea, Japan hold first post-summit talks on comfort women issue

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) meeting South Korean President Park Geun Hye (right) in Seoul on Nov 2.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) meeting South Korean President Park Geun Hye (right) in Seoul on Nov 2.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (AFP) - South Korean and Japanese officials held their first talks on Wednesday (Nov 11) since their leaders agreed to seek a speedy resolution in a long-running dispute over Korean women forced into wartime sexual slavery.

The "comfort women" issue topped the agenda at last week's summit in Seoul between South Korean President Park Geun Hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

It was their first one-on-one meeting. Ms Park had previously rebuffed all summit proposals, arguing that Tokyo had yet to properly atone for its wartime past and 1910-45 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.

During their talks, she stressed that the comfort women issue was the "biggest stumbling block" to normalised ties, as the two leaders vowed to speed up consultations to resolve the dispute.

South Korea is demanding a formal apology and compensation for the Korean women forced to serve as sex slaves in Japanese military army brothels during World War II.

Japan maintains that the dispute was settled in a 1965 normalisation agreement, which saw Tokyo make a total payment of US$800 million (S$1.14 billion) in grants or loans to its former colony.

The two sides have already held nine rounds of talks on the issue since April last year, but with no tangible progress.

Wednesday's meeting is in the same framework, but will be closely monitored for any signs that the summit agreement has shifted the discussion lines.

Presiding over a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Ms Park again stressed that the issue should be settled "as early as possible".

Mainstream historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also from China, Indonesia and other Asian nations, were forced into sexual slavery during the war.

South Korea has only 47 surviving comfort women - all of them in advanced old age.

"Our government's position is constant and firm. The comfort women issue should be resolved urgently," Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June Hyuck told a regular press briefing.

The Japanese government should present a solution "that victims can accept," he said.

Abe made no specific commitment during his summit talks with Park, but told reporters afterwards that both sides had an obligation to "not leave obstacles for future generations".