Japan, South Korea Foreign Minsters Set for `Comfort Women' Talk

  • Foreign ministers meet in Seoul for talks on Monday afternoon
  • Talks follow first bilateral summit between leaders in 3 years

The foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan are meeting in Seoul in a bid to remove the biggest source of tension between the two U.S. allies -- the former "comfort women" coerced into Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se and Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida will seek an agreement on the issue that has hampered the closer regional cooperation sought by the U.S. as China grows ever more assertive and North Korea continues to flaunt its nuclear ambitions. The government of President Park Geun Hye has demanded Japan make a “sincere apology” and offer compensation for about four dozen remaining survivors in South Korea. 

Japan may use government funds to support the women, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is considering a message of apology referring to Japan’s responsibility for their wartime treatment, Japanese media reported over the weekend. In return, Japan would seek confirmation that the Park administration would consider the matter closed, the Nikkei newspaper said.

China has also been calling on South Korea to help with its campaign to make the world more aware of its suffering during the Japanese invasion, successfully having documents on the Nanking massacre listed in Unesco’s Memory of the World register. A deal between South Korea and Japan would help Abe sap China’s efforts, while allowing Park to ease worries in the U.S. that her country is pivoting too much toward China.

“Park’s definitely been feeling the pressure from the U.S. and needs to do more to dispel lingering doubts about whom she’s siding with,” said Yang Kee Ho, a professor of Japanese studies at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul. “For Abe, these talks have the purpose of preempting China’s comfort women pitch.”

Last month, Park and Abe held the first bilateral summit between the countries in more than three years, agreeing to expedite a resolution on the comfort women issue. While Abe acknowledged the "immeasurable damage and suffering" inflicted by Japan in an August statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, he said his nation shouldn’t be expected to keep apologizing for the conflict.

"Closing the book on the comfort women issue would enable Abe to appear statesmanlike and would remove a pretty sticky thorn not only in Japan’s relations with South Korea but also with the United States," said Tobias Harris, a political risk analyst with Teneo Intelligence. "The question -- which will be answered within the next few hours -- is whether an agreement that enables both Abe and Park to declare victory at home exists."

Mood of Reconciliation

South Korea and Japanese diplomats have met about a dozen times to discuss the comfort women since April 2014, and Monday’s meeting fits in with a growing mood of reconciliation since Abe’s 70th anniversary speech. On Dec. 17 a Seoul court, following a petition by South Korea’s Foreign Ministry for leniency, acquitted a Japanese journalist of a defamation charge stemming from an article about Park.

"These will be very important talks, and we will put our all into them,” Kishida told reporters before his departure to Seoul on Monday morning. “The comfort women issue is a very difficult issue, but I will do what I can.”

Kishida may meet Park if major progress is made, the Nikkei reported Monday.

U.S. Presence

South Korea and Japan are each other’s third-biggest trading partner. The U.S. has more than 75,000 troops based in Japan and South Korea -- about half all U.S. forces abroad. Any thaw in ties would be warmly received by the U.S., which seeks greater three-way military cooperation to address issues ranging from North Korea’s nuclear arms to China’s territorial ambitions.

"Japanese and South Korean officials are very worried about China," said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan campus. "The U.S. is the key ally for Japan and South Korea, and the Americans’ view is important. They don’t care who is right or wrong, they just want the two allies to work together."

Japan colonized the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945 -- a period still recalled with resentment among many Koreans. Abe infuriated South Korea’s public in 2013 when he visited a Tokyo ware shrine seen by many in Asia as a symbol of past militarism.

Historians say anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women -- many of them Korean -- served in Japan’s military brothels. Japan apologized in 1993 and set up a compensation fund that was rejected by some victims because it was privately funded.

South Koreans have continued to draw attention to the suffering of comfort women, erecting statues honoring them in the U.S. as well as placing one in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Meanwhile, right-leaning Japanese politicians have tried to play down Japan’s responsibility in exploiting the women.

Last year, Abe blamed inaccurate reporting on the issue for damaging Japan’s honor, remarks seen as a reference to a series of reports withdrawn by the Asahi newspaper that purported to detail Japan’s trafficking of women before and during the war.

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