South Korean President Lee Myung Bak called for Japan to resolve the so-called comfort women issue in talks with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in Kyoto which failed to produce progress on a bilateral free-trade agreement or North Korea.
Japan’s sexual enslavement of Korean women during World War II remains an obstacle to a partnership between the two nations that’s crucial to regional peace and security, Lee told Noda in Kyoto today, South Korea’s Yonhap News reported.
The talks came amid two historical disputes that remain sources of occasional friction. South Korea and Japan both claim ownership over a group of islets, and Lee is backing demands for an apology and compensation for women forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s military.
“The comfort women issue should be resolved right now as their average age is 86 and some of them have already passed away,” Lee said, according to a statement on his official website. Lee spent most of the meeting with Noda addressing the issue, according to the statement.
Several comfort women and their supporters installed a bronze statue of a young girl in traditional Korean dress in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul in protest on Dec. 13. Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura said Japan has asked that the statue be removed.
“I expect the prime minister’s political determination to resolve the issue, which is a stumbling block for the two countries to move forward,” the statement said. “Without sincere action from Japan, we will have second and third statues whenever an old comfort woman passes away.”
Noda promised that Japan would “think carefully” from a humanitarian standpoint, Kyodo News reported. He asked Lee to accelerate talks on a free-trade agreement, Kyodo said.
As many as 200,000 women, mostly from Korea and China, were forced into sexual servitude during Japan’s occupation of Asia in the first half of the 20th century. The Japanese government issued an apology in 1993 and set up a compensation fund in 1995 that some victims rejected because it was funded by private contributions.
Noda is seeking to boost Japan’s trade position, which lags South Korea after Lee’s government last month ratified a free-trade accord with the U.S. Noda in November announced his intention to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks over the objections of some ruling party lawmakers concerned a deal would hurt farmers.
Japan and South Korea are each other’s third-biggest trading partners and bilateral trade rose 23 percent in 2010 to 8 trillion yen ($103 billion), according to Japanese government statistics.