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Japan and South Korea compromise on 'comfort women' issue

SEOUL/WASHINGTON   A determination to resolve their long-festering dispute by year-end and warm up chilly 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 news conference after a meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, on Dec. 28. Kishida and Yun outlined their governments' positions, but they took no questions and put out no joint documents on the accord.

     Seoul was particularly keen on restoring the comfort women's honor -- something it said would hinge on the Japanese side recognizing the women as victims of inhumane and illegal acts. Its position appeared aimed at strengthening support at home for the agreement by characterizing the government funds that Japan will set aside for the women as compensation.

     Tokyo maintains the issue was legally resolved by a 1965 bilateral agreement. It continued to avoid references to legal responsibility, partly due to concerns about recent lawsuits filed in South Korea against Japanese companies over wartime forced labor.

OWNING UP   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.

     In letters to former comfort women, Japanese prime ministers have acknowledged Japan's moral responsibility. There is a perception among some in South Korea that Tokyo has now essentially admitted legal responsibility by eliminating this distinction, according to a former top South Korean official. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's expression of "most sincere apologies and remorse" was also received favorably in South Korea.

     South Korea also made some concessions. The two countries agreed that the issue "is resolved finally and irreversibly" -- a key demand from Abe, who remains wary of further demands from Seoul.

     The two sides struggled to resolve the issue of a statue placed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The statue of a young girl symbolizing the comfort women had been an irritant to Japan. The South Korean government previously said 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 discussions with the organizations concerned.

ONCE AND FOR ALL?   While the two sides aimed to avert future disputes over interpretation by hammering out an explicit agreement, rifts have already begun to appear. Kishida said after the Dec. 28 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" of the comfort women issue, Yun stressed that this depends on whether Japan keeps its promises.

     Japan and South Korea also agreed to "refrain from accusing or criticizing each other over 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.

     The Obama administration expressed satisfaction with its two main East Asian allies for vowing to resolve the issue. Looking to sustain the momentum, Abe's government is floating the idea of a three-way meeting with President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye at a nuclear security summit in Washington. At the summit, Abe would likely call for closer cooperation on North Korea and other threats, and seek support to bring people abducted to North Korea back to Japan.

     If the meeting goes ahead, it would be the leaders' first sit-down since March 2014, when Obama stepped in to soothe tensions between Japan and South Korea. More significantly, it would mark Abe's first face-to-face encounter with Park since the comfort women agreement. The two-day nuclear security summit, an Obama initiative, is set to begin March 31.

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