There was a strong sense of urgency as world leaders gathered in Seoul on March 26 and 27 for a nuclear security summit.
International tensions were heightened over Iran’s nuclear program and North Korea’s recent announcement that it will launch what it referred to as a satellite.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who hosted the conference, held separate bilateral talks with the leaders of many countries, including the United States and China, but a meeting with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda was not on his schedule. It was because of scheduling reasons, according to the official explanation by the both government.
But the conspicuous absence of the Japanese prime minister on the list of leaders Lee met in Seoul appears to symbolize the strain in the relations between Japan and South Korea caused by a fresh row over the issue of "comfort women," who were forced to provide sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
The Japan-South Korea summit held on Dec. 17 and 18 in Kyoto ended in an unusually bitter tone.
The two leaders clashed over the "comfort women" issue, which has long plagued bilateral ties, and Lee uncharacteristically spoke with emotion.
As it turned out, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died on Dec. 17. Unaware of the fact, though, Noda and Lee locked horns over the issue of compensation for former "comfort women."
Amid growing anxiety about the new regime in Pyongyang, the North would again launch missiles over South Korea and Japan. It could also carry out fresh nuclear tests.
The situation clearly demands that Japan and South Korea, two countries that should be the closest allies in Asia, patch up their relationship.
OVERTURE FROM LEE
Apparently disturbed by the state of ties between the two neighbors, Lee made an overture in a March 21 interview with The Asahi Shimbun and some other media organizations.
He said the dispute over South Korea’s request for Japan’s payments of compensation to former “comfort women” should be treated as a “humanitarian issue,” rather than as a “legal issue,” in bilateral efforts to solve it. He was obviously ready to face criticism about this comment from the organization of former “comfort women.”
There was one humanitarian initiative made by Japan to deal with the issue called The Asian Women’s Fund.
While insisting that all war reparations issues between the two countries were settled when they normalized their diplomatic relationship in 1965, the Japanese government nevertheless helped organize a campaign to collect donations from the private sector for payments of “atonement money” to former “comfort women” in several countries, including South Korea. The money was delivered along with a letter of apology signed by the prime minister. Four successive prime ministers signed such a letter, from Ryutaro Hashimoto to Junichiro Koizumi.
Following is a passage from the letter, which is shown in the “Digital Museum” of the fund.
“As Prime Minister of Japan, I thus extend anew my 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.' "
But many former “comfort women” in South Korea, supported by citizen groups dedicated to the cause, refused to accept the money, demanding official compensation from the Japanese government, and staged an international protest campaign.
As a result, the prime ministers’ apologies were not widely accepted in the country and remained unknown to most South Koreans when the fund was closed in 2007. This has led to the impression that Japan has been refusing to apologize over the issue.
NODA'S TURN TO RESPOND
The unfortunate end to the fund initiative was followed by a decline in public interest in the issue in Japan. But in South Korea, it emerged afresh as a diplomatic issue after the country’s Constitutional Court handed down a ruling in August last year that urged the South Korean government to start negotiations with Japan over the issue.
Then, as former “comfort women” and their supporters held their 1,000th weekly protest rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul at the end of last year, they set up a memorial statue of a girl. This action provoked a protest from Tokyo.
Frustrated by the lack of progress, a growing number of officials within the South Korean government are calling for seeking international mediation involving third countries as the only possible way to settle the dispute.
But such an approach could end up in an unseemly diplomatic mudslinging match.
President Lee’s overture was a risky diplomatic gambit to prevent that from happening. Now, the ball is in Noda’s court. It is his turn to respond to Lee’s move.
It is not easy now to figure out a humanitarian solution to this emotionally charged issue.
The most important thing Japan should do now is to deliver the prime ministers’ message of apology to former “comfort women.”
Despite all disagreements and emotional discord over the issue between the two countries, Japan would be acting in an unbearably callous manner if it allows these aged women to die holding a grudge against the Japanese government after many years of holding protest rallies only to be totally ignored by the Japanese Embassy.
There are many rightists in Japan who fiercely argue that Japan as a nation has no responsibility for former “comfort women.”
But the fact that several conservative prime ministers signed the letter of apology for these women has no small historical significance.
By respecting the spirit of the letter, Japan can take a good first step toward solving this sticky issue.
* * *
Yoshibumi Wakamiya is editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun.
- « Prev
- Next »