The leaders of South Korea and Japan resumed formal talks Monday after a three and a half year freeze and agreed to try to resolve the decades-old issue of Korean women forced into Japanese military-run brothels during World War 2.
The agreement is a step forward but not a breakthrough. Ties between the two countries have sagged to one of their lowest ebbs since the late 2012 inauguration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who takes a more hawkish, nationalistic stance than many of his predecessors. Seoul believes that Abe seeks to obscure Japan’s brutal colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula in 1910-1945.
The biggest source of friction is over Japanese responsibility for wartime sex slaves, who were euphemistically called “comfort women.” Historians say tens of thousands of women from around Asia, many of them Korean, were sent to front-line military brothels to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.
Japan has apologised many times before, but many South Koreans see the statements and past efforts at private compensation as insufficient.
Abe hoped to weaken a 1993 apology but later promised not to do so following protests from South Korea and elsewhere.
On Monday, Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye agreed to try harder to settle the issue through dialogue, according to Park’s office.
“On the comfort women issue, I think the issue should not become an obstacle for the next generation so we can build future-oriented cooperative relations,” Abe told reporters after the meeting. “We have agreed to speed up our negotiations toward a resolution as soon as possible.”
Their closely watched meeting came a day after they joined a three-way summit with China’s premier and agreed to improve ties strained over historical and territorial disputes. Many in China also harbor similar resentment against Japan.