South Korea has issued demands during summits, proposed action plans and even had its president land on an island at the center of a territorial dispute. All of these measures were taken in the name of urging Japan to take action to resolve the “comfort women” issue.
South Korea’s moves also came about after a court ruled that inaction--on the part of Seoul--was unconstitutional.
The Constitutional Court of Korea ruled on Aug. 30, 2011, that the South Korean government's failure to seek a solution with Japan on compensating the former comfort women "constitutes infringement on the basic human rights of the victims and a violation of the Constitution."
One year later, and amid heated exchanges between the two countries, South Korea appears to be taking the view that it is playing its role and the onus is now on Japan to respond appropriately.
"The issue of military comfort women is a problem Japan has to solve," Cho Tai-young, a spokesman for South Korea’s foreign ministry, told a news briefing on Aug. 30. "The Japanese government should take sincere measures that can be accepted by the victims. We will continue to use different methods to urge Japan to resolve this issue."
However, South Korea’s actions so far have only led to a backlash from Japanese politicians, driving bilateral relations into a tight corner.
“Comfort women” is the euphemism for Korean and other Asian women who were forced into frontline brothels for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
Tokyo and Seoul have bickered over a number of history perceptions concerning Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, but the comfort women issue is perhaps the most explosive in South Korea.
It was only in the 1990s, following South Korea's democratization, that former comfort women in the country came forward and began to openly call on the Japanese government for an apology and compensation. Some of them filed lawsuits in Japan, but Japanese courts have dismissed their demands.
Tokyo maintains that the Japan-South Korea agreement in 1965, when the two countries normalized relations, resolved all compensation issues, including the former comfort women's rights to demand redress.
Seoul obviously does not share this view.
About four months after the ruling by the Constitutional Court of Korea, the comfort women issue became a major point of contention during summit talks in Kyoto last December.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak urged Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to lead efforts to find a solution. Noda reiterated Japan's stance that the issue had already been settled legally, but he did say that he hoped to come up with available “wisdom” from a humanitarian point of view.
Officials of both governments have since held informal discussions on what that "wisdom" specifically means.
According to South Korean government sources, Japan sent Kenichiro Sasae, vice minister for foreign affairs, to South Korea in March to present a plan to "extend aid to former comfort women from a humanitarian viewpoint."
The South Korean government sounded out concerned parties on the proposal. But the Japanese plan was angrily rejected by organizations assisting the former comfort women who insisted on an "official apology and compensation" from Japan.
Lee summoned Shin Kak-soo, the South Korean ambassador to Japan, in mid-July and told the envoy to present to the Japanese government South Korea's plan for a solution centered on humanitarian aid.
It was then Japan’s turn to reject the proposal, the sources said.
The dispute escalated after Aug. 10, when Lee landed on one of the Takeshima islets, which are administered by South Korea but claimed by Japan.
Lee fueled the flames by saying that behind his landing on the island in the Sea of Japan was the Japanese government’s lack of progress in resolving the comfort women issue. He later demanded Emperor Akihito apologize for Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, a statement that infuriated Japanese politicians and prompted sharp reactions from some conservative local leaders.
"That argument mixes up a territorial dispute with an issue of the perception of history," said a senior official of the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
Seoul also raised the possibility of referring the comfort women issue to an arbitration committee that includes a third country on the basis of the 1965 bilateral agreement.
But many South Korean government insiders and experts opposed that option, saying such a move would cause irreparable damage to bilateral relations.
"We will not be referring the case to an arbitration committee, at least in the near future," a senior South Korean Foreign Ministry official told reporters on Aug. 28. "The effective way is to watch the development of Japan's political scene, which remains unstable."
South Koreans say there is a sense of urgency in finding a solution.
Of the 234 former comfort women registered with the South Korean government, nine have died within the past year and only 61 survive, according to an organization that supports them.
Around two decades ago, Japan did make a move to resolve the issue.
In August 1993, Yohei Kono, the chief Cabinet secretary at the time, released a statement that offered a Japanese apology to the former comfort women. It was the first time the Japanese government said military authorities were involved in recruiting the women and acknowledged the coercive nature of the action.
An Asian Women's Fund, set up in 1995 under the auspices of the Japanese government, sent "atonement money" to former comfort women using donations from the general public.
But the feud erupted again in March 2007, after then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters: "Isn't it a fact that there was no evidence that supported the coercive nature?"
The Abe Cabinet decided to adopt a government statement that said: "The material discovered by the government prior to the release of the Kono statement contained no documentation that directly indicated coercive recruitment by the military or the authorities."
Nonetheless, all consecutive Cabinets of Japan, including Abe's, have stuck to the stance of abiding by the Kono statement. The Noda Cabinet has also adopted that stance, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba said.
Yet even when Noda explained that he would stick to the Kono statement, he made comments that angered South Koreans.
"The (Kono) statement was formulated on the basis of accounts given by the so-called comfort women, although no document or testimony on the Japanese side confirmed the factuality of coercive recruitment," Noda told the Upper House Budget Committee on Aug. 27.
During the same Budget Committee session, Jin Matsubara, chairman of the National Public Safety Commission, suggested a review of the government’s stance.
"I would propose that Cabinet ministers discuss the status of the Kono statement," Matsubara said.
South Korea blasted Noda, saying he was denying that the issue even existed and that he was distorting history. Seoul even suggested it would take the comfort women issue to the United Nations.
"It remains far from easy to come up with a brilliant idea that would allow both countries to agree," said a senior official of the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
(Tetsuya Hakoda in Seoul contributed to this article.)
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To read full text of the 1993 Kono statement on the comfort women issue, visit:
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