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Leaders narrowly beat the clock with historic agreement

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye strove to reach a deal before the end of 2015.   © Yonhap/Kyodo

SEOUL -- Japan and South Korea's deal on the wartime "comfort women" issue, reached just three days before the end of 2015, was the result of efforts by both sides to capitalize on the opportunity afforded by the 50th anniversary of the normalization of ties between the two nations.

Taking responsibility

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on Thursday afternoon, sending him to South Korea. "I'll take responsibility," the prime minister told Kishida.

     "I'll leave it to your discretion. There's no need to compromise," Abe said, adding that the meeting would have "historical significance" if a deal could be put together. He also stressed that including a reference to an agreement being a "final and irreversible" resolution to the issue was a nonnegotiable condition.

     Abe's decision came in light of softening by Seoul. On Wednesday, South Korea's Constitutional Court declined to rule on the constitutionality of the 1965 treaty that declared all individual claims between Japan and South Korea permanently settled. At this news, Abe directed his executive secretary to work toward an agreement on the comfort women issue by the end of the year. The former Seoul bureau chief of the Sankei Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, also had been found not guilty recently of defaming South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and prosecutors there Tuesday declined to appeal the ruling.

     South Korea demonstrated its good faith, so Japan would reciprocate, an Abe aide said. Senior national security adviser Shotaro Yachi went to South Korea over the two days ended Wednesday for an unofficial meeting with presidential chief of staff Lee Byung-kee. Yachi had been sent to the country secretly in June as well. The trust built between Yachi and Lee helped to pave the way for the agreement.

     Seoul and Tokyo compromised on the size of a fund to assist former comfort women Japan had offered to set up. More than 1 billion yen ($8.22 million) will be provided, splitting the difference between Japan's initial proposal of over 100 million yen and South Korea's request for at least 2 billion yen.

     "We demonstrated the highest degree of good faith," a Japanese government source said.

     Japan's 2016 upper house elections also likely were on Abe's mind. Mending fences with South Korea would obviate the need to respond to criticism from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. The prime minister wrapped up a phone call with Park on Monday evening by saying he looks forward to seeing her visit Japan.

Last chance

Park was motivated largely by the wishes of the U.S., a South Korean government source said. Washington, which had shown an understanding of Seoul's stance on clashes with Japan over history, began pressing harder for a rapprochement around this past spring.

     At an October summit, U.S. President Barack Obama warned Park about South Korea's diplomatic strategy of cozying up to both Washington and Beijing. Seoul, fearing it could be left isolated, decided to work on fixing relations with Japan.

     Park also was driven by concern that allowing this year's diplomatic milestone to pass by would eliminate a key motivating factor, as well as worry about the diminishing ranks of aging former comfort women. She decided during the summer to accelerate talks on the issue, trying to take advantage of this window of opportunity before it was shut forever.

     Public opinion toward a thaw with Japan has turned more positive amid a flagging economy. South Korea is poised to shift to campaign mode as the April general election approaches. With reformers among the opposition ready to pounce over the comfort women issue, Park saw this as, effectively, the last chance for a deal with Japan.

Pressure from Washington

The agreement was in line with U.S. expectations. Obama told Abe at an April meeting that Washington would support efforts to improve relations between Japan and South Korea, particularly given the need to present a united front against North Korea. And when Obama met with Park in October, he said that he hopes the two sides can resolve their knotty historical issues to create a forward-looking relationship in northeastern Asia.

     "Next they'll bring the U.S. between them and affirm unity in East Asia," a Japanese government source said.

     Abe said during the phone call with Park that he aims to bolster bilateral cooperation in a number of fields, including security, to further the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo. Park said she agrees on the need to work together more closely on defense, adding that she hopes for continued close cooperation in dealing with North Korea and other issues.

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