Mending fences was the top priority for Japan, South Korea
HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer
SEOUL -- A determination to resolve their long-festering dispute by year-end and improve chilled relations led the Japanese and South Korean governments to bury the hatchet on the issue of wartime "comfort women."
A mutually acceptable agreement has been reached, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said at the start of a joint news conference after a meeting with Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida on Monday. Kishida and Yun then outlined their governments' positions. But they took no questions and offered no joint documents.
Seoul was particularly keen on restoring the comfort women's honor -- a step it had argued would hinge on the Japanese side recognizing the women as victims of inhumane and illegal acts. The South Korean government likely aimed to strengthen support at home by framing as reparations the government funds that Japan will budget for the women.
Tokyo maintains that the issue was legally resolved by a 1965 bilateral agreement. It continued to avoid references to any legal responsibility, partly on concerns about recent lawsuits against Japanese companies in South Korea over wartime forced labor.
But Kishida did acknowledge "a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women" and said the Japanese government "is painfully aware of responsibilities," going a step further than it had in the past. Japan also greatly increased the funds allocated to assist former comfort women.
When writing to former comfort women, Japanese prime ministers have called their country's responsibility a moral one. Now, Tokyo has essentially admitted legal responsibility by eliminating this distinction, according to a former top South Korean official. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "most sincere apologies and remorse" were also received favorably here.
South Korea also made some concessions to Japan. The two countries agreed that the issue "is resolved finally and irreversibly" -- a key demand from Abe, who remains wary of Seoul.
The two sides struggled to the end over the statue of a girl, symbolizing the comfort women, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The South Korean government had maintained it could not remove the statue, as it was erected by a civic group. But it ultimately promised to "strive to solve this issue in an appropriate manner," through such means as consulting related organizations, in order to reach a comprehensive accord.
While both governments aimed to avert future disputes over interpretation by hammering out an explicit agreement, rifts have already begun to appear. Kishida said after Monday's news conference that he expected the statue to be moved. But South Korean officials countered that no such promises had been made. And while Kishida sees the recent agreement as the "final resolution" to the comfort women issue, Yun stressed that this depends on whether Japan keeps its promises first.
Japan and South Korea also agreed to "refrain from accusing or criticizing each other regarding this issue in the international community." While South Korea's Maeil Business Newspaper lauded the development as an opportunity to create a forward-looking relationship, the Seoul Shinmun argued that some debate remains as to whether Japan is owning up to a legal or moral responsibility.