Abe Bids to Reconcile With Park by End of Anniversary Year

  • Japan's foreign minister to meet counterpart in Seoul Dec. 28
  • 'Comfort women' issue among toughest dividing Asian neighbors

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to resolve a sensitive issue fraying relations with South Korea in the final days of the year marking the 50th anniversary of the normalization of ties between Japan and its former colony.

Abe’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida announced Friday he would visit South Korea Dec. 28 to discuss with his counterpart a potential agreement on compensating Korean "comfort women," who were trafficked to Japanese military brothels before and during World War Two. Abe is considering setting up a fund for the women and offering a message of apology that would refer to Japan’s responsibility for their treatment, the Nikkei newspaper said. In return, Japan would seek confirmation that President Park Geun Hye’s administration will consider the matter closed, the paper said.

The comfort women have been the focus of repeated waves of antagonism between the Asian neighbors, who are also at odds over forced labor in the early 20th century and ownership of rocky outcroppings in the sea dividing them. The sour relationship has frustrated the U.S., which wants closer military cooperation between its two major regional allies to help balance China’s growing assertiveness.

"The problem of the comfort women is extremely difficult, but I want to take the negotiations as far as they will go and see what can be done," Kishida told reporters.

Abe and Park held the first bilateral summit between the two countries in more than three years last month, agreeing to speed up negotiations on the comfort women and seek a resolution as soon as possible. Progress toward a resolution this year would be doubly significant because it also marks the 70th anniversary of Japan’s World War II defeat, which brought its colonization of the Korean peninsula to a close.

"It’s never going to ‘end,’ in that there will always be a segment of the Korean public that’s not happy about what Japan does and there’ll always be Japanese who’ll make statements that will enrage Koreans," said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus. "But, if some agreement were found on compensating victims that would satisfy at least the South Korean government - it would be a giant step."

Right-wingers in Japan, some seen as close to Abe, have tried to play down Japan’s responsibility for the exploitation of the comfort women. Abe himself blamed inaccurate reporting on the issue by domestic media for damaging Japan’s honor. He also inflamed tensions over history with a 2013 visit to Yasukuni shrine, seen by many in South Korea as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

South Koreans have sought to draw more attention to the suffering of the women, only a few dozen of whom survive in the nation, erecting statues honoring them in the U.S. as well as one outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se will meet with Kishida on Dec. 28 in Seoul to exchange views on comfort women and other matters facing the two nations, according to a statement posted Friday on South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website. 

Progress on a problem that has been a thorn in the side of bilateral ties for decades could also bolster Abe’s plan to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, according to Sebastian Maslow, assistant professor of politics at Tohoku University in Sendai.

The idea of changing Japan’s constitution has always sparked concern that the nation will return to militarism, Maslow said. "Resolving wartime issues is a prerequisite to ensure support from regional neighbors and domestic voters for his revision plans."

Historians say anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women, many of them from the Korean peninsula, were rounded up to serve in Japan’s military brothels as it invaded large parts of Asia during the first half of the 20th century. Japan apologized in 1993 and set up a compensation fund that was rejected by some victims because it was financed with private donations.

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