South Korea and Japan reached a landmark agreement on Monday to resolve the issue of “comfort women”, as those who were forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels were euphemistically known, which has long plagued ties between the neighbours.
The foreign ministers of the two countries said after a meeting in Seoul that the “comfort women” issue would be “finally and irreversibly resolved” if all conditions were met.
The agreement will be welcomed by the United States, which has been keen for improved relations between its two major Asian allies in the face of an increasingly assertive China and an unpredictable North Korea.
Strains between Tokyo and Seoul have prevented the two countries from signing an agreement to share sensitive military information, so a year ago they signed a three-way pact under which Seoul routes its information to the United States which then passes it on to Japan, and vice versa.
“It is historic and epoch-making that such an agreement has been reached,” Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told a news conference, adding that Japan was “painfully aware” of its responsibilities in the issue.
“Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as ‘comfort women’.
“I believe this has set up a stage for advancement of security cooperation between Japan and South Korea, as well as among Japan, the United States and South Korea”.
Japan will draw on its government budget to contribute about one billion yen ($8.3 million) to a fund that will help the former “comfort women”, and work with South Korea to run a programme to restore their honour and dignity, Kishida said.
South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said he valued Japan’s efforts.
“On the premise that the steps pledged by the Japanese government are earnestly carried out, the Korean government confirms that the matter (of comfort women) is finally and irreversibly resolved,” Yun told the news conference.
The two countries have been trying for decades to overcome divisions over the “comfort women” issue, but past efforts have not succeeded.
Japan had been insisting South Korea state its intention to lay the issue to rest this time, since many officials resent what they see as South Korea’s use of the “comfort women” issue for domestic political gain despite past steps taken by Tokyo.
South Korea, for its part, wanted a clearer statement by Japan of its responsibility for the women’s suffering.
A powerful symbol of success would be the fate of a statue commemorating “comfort women” that has been erected in from of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and has been an irritant to Tokyo.
Although South Korea did not agree to remove the statue, Yun said Seoul recognises Japan’s concerns and will hold discussions with the group that erected it to address the issue.
The two countries have been pushing to improve relations since Japan’s Abe met South Korean President Park Geun-hye last month. That meeting took place partly under pressure from Washington.