(Nikkei: November 3, 2015 – p. 3)
By Hiroshi Minegishi in Seoul
At their summit meeting on Nov. 2, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye agreed to issue instructions to step up negotiations on the comfort women issue with the aim of reaching agreement within this year. The two governments will now try to find a solution quickly. In addition to financial assistance, the ROK is also demanding an “apology” from the Prime Minister acknowledging Japan’s responsibility. On the other hand, Japan is pressing the ROK to guarantee that an agreement reached will be the “final settlement.” Negotiations are expected to be tough, so prospects are still uncertain for normalization of relations.
The comfort women issue was the main topic at the bilateral summit. A small group meeting preceding the plenary session that had been scheduled for 30 minutes ran into one hour, mostly taken up by the comfort women issue. Park, who had set progress made in this issue as the condition for holding a summit meeting, could not afford to compromise. She personally conveyed the message that the comfort women issue is the “greatest obstacle in the Japan-ROK relationship.”
Since some former comfort women stepped forward in 1991, the Japanese government has issued a statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono to express “sincere apologies and remorse” and created the Asian Women’s Fund to deal with this issue. Yet, reconciliation did not last long. Park, who became the first female ROK president in 2013, also set this issue as her top priority.
Abe made concessions at the meeting on Nov. 2. The Obama administration has been pressuring Japan and the ROK to settle their dispute on the history issues and Abe himself talked about “an era in which women’s human rights are not infringed upon” (in his statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II). He agreed with Park to “conclude talks as soon as possible, bearing in mind the fact that this year marks the 50th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations.”
This was in consideration of Park’s position of seeking a solution within this year. A source at the ROK presidential office calls attention to the fact that a solution by the end of this year was mentioned, referring to this as an achievement of the summit. The ROK media also hailed this as “one step forward.”
The ROK has been demanding that Japan accept legal responsibility for the comfort women issue. It regards the Japanese government’s acknowledgement that the former comfort women were subject to inhuman and illegal treatment as necessary for restoring their honor. This is the reason it is hoping for an apology from the Prime Minister recognizing such “responsibility” for Japan’s colonial rule and for the suffering of the comfort women.
Abe stated during a BS Fuji TV program on the evening of Nov. 2 that while the Japanese government maintains its position that the comfort women issue was “settled” by the 1965 Japan-ROK agreement on claims, it will consider expanding a follow-up project to the Asian Women’s Fund. There is also a proposal for the Japanese ambassador to South Korea to meet with the former comfort women.
A Japanese government source observes that “the agreement between the two leaders also puts pressure on the ROK to compromise.” Japan is asking the ROK to remove the statue of a young girl symbolizing the comfort women erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul (currently under renovation). However, the ROK says it would be difficult to do so.
Japan is wary that the ROK may “shift its goalposts.” It is also demanding guarantee of a “final settlement” for the comfort women issue or no unilateral annulment of the agreement in response to negative reactions from public.
A political decision by Abe and Park will be necessary for a final solution to the comfort women issue. The first task will be to put in place an environment conducive to that, including the restoration of trust between the two governments. (Slightly abridged)