December 29, 2015 7:07 am JST
'Comfort women' accord

Controversy gained prominence in 1990s

KENTARO OGURA, Nikkei staff writer

SEOUL -- The wartime "comfort women" issue, which has long plagued Japan-South Korea relations, first emerged as a diplomatic controversy in the 1990s.

     A civic group supporting the comfort women, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, was founded in 1990. Former comfort women sued the Japanese government for reparations the following year in Japan. Then-South Korean President Roh Tae-woo called for an inquiry into the issue, as well as reparations, in a 1992 summit.

     In 1993, the Japanese cabinet under then-Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa published a report on the Japanese military's involvement in establishing and managing comfort stations. Then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono released a statement admitting that coercion was used and extending "sincere apologies and remorse" to the victims. These efforts were received well by South Korea and improved bilateral ties.

     The rift grew again in 1995 over the Asian Women's Fund set up by the Japanese government. The foundation had been delivering 2 million yen ($16,400 at current rates), funded by private sources, and a letter of apology from the prime minister to each victim. But civic groups in South Korea called for a boycott of these payments on grounds that Tokyo had not acknowledged its legal responsibilities.

     Seoul greatly boosted its assistance to the women, such as by increasing the lump-sum payments it began providing in 1993. It pushed Japan's government to respond to the issue whenever bilateral relations hit snags.

     In 2011, the Constitutional Court of Korea ruled it was unconstitutional for the government to make no effort to resolve the dispute with Japan and that its inaction infringed on these women's rights. Under pressure, then-President Lee Myung-bak demanded that Japan take action, but Tokyo insisted the issue had been resolved. This row was likely a factor in Lee's controversial 2012 visit to the disputed islands called Takeshima by Japan and Dokdo by South Korea.

     South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who took office in 2013, refused to hold bilateral summits with Japan unless she first made headway on the comfort women issue. She and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe finally met in November, where they agreed on a speedy end to the conflict and paved the way for recent developments.

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