Talks over 'comfort women' issue may see big progress

by The Washington Post
The Washington Post

TOKYO — Talks between Japan and South Korea over the issue of so-called comfort women could take a big step forward as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week instructed Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to visit South Korea.

During a meeting with Kishida on Thursday, Abe reportedly told him: "I'll take responsibility. I want you to go to South Korea by the end of this year to negotiate [over the issue]."

"This year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-South Korea relations. We remain unchanged in our stance to continue and accelerate talks to reach a deal over the issue as early as possible," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference on Thursday when he was asked about the progress in the talks on the so-called comfort women issue.

The Japanese and South Korean governments have been continuing negotiations over the issue behind the scenes since this spring. The talks were led by Shotaro Yachi, secretary general of the National Security Secretariat and Abe's close aide, and Lee Byung Kee, presidential chief of staff and former ambassador to Japan who is close to South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

As the relationship between Japan and South Korea cooled over the issue, Yachi and Lee kept contact with each other, eyeing the possibility that the situation would change.

The turning point was the first summit meeting between Abe and Park, held on Nov. 2 in Seoul. The two leaders agreed to aim to strike a deal on the issue as early as possible.

After that, a Seoul court acquitted the former Seoul bureau chief of The Sankei Shimbun, who had been accused of defaming Park in an article. The South Korean Constitutional Court did not render a judgment on whether the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on the Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea was unconstitutional. With such moves, the mood of reconciliation between the two countries rapidly grew.

Official negotiations over the issue through both countries' foreign ministries failed to reach an agreement even after the summit meeting in November. In December, however, talks between Yachi and Lee were frequently held behind the scenes. Based on the results of their talks, Kishida hopes to gain concessions from the South Korean side at a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se, to be held Monday.

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In case the two countries reach a deal for a solution to the so-called comfort women issue, the Japanese government hopes to prevent the issue from being raised again in the future.

Based on the 1965 agreement, the Japanese government paid South Korea $500 million in economic cooperation, among other measures, and provided "atonement money" for former comfort women through the Asian Women's Fund, a Japanese foundation established in 1995. Past prime ministers sent letters to the former comfort women to express apology to them.

"While the government takes a position that the issue has already been settled, it has been doing all it can for the former comfort women as humanitarian support," a senior Foreign Ministry official said. Some Japanese officials are fed up with past South Korean governments that demanded the Japanese government take further measures on the issue.

"If the upcoming talks end up in failure, the comfort women issue will become deadlocked again," a senior government official said Thursday.

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