■Japan, South Korea should immediately resolve comfort women issue：
Distrust continues between Japan and South Korea despite the fact that they are neighboring countries with only a narrow sea between them. But a move made last year, which was revealed earlier this month, could become a breakthrough to overcome the deadlock.
In 2012, the government of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and the South Korean government of President Lee Myung-bak held talks to resolve the "comfort women" issue of the wartime Japanese army and got to a point that was extremely close to reaching a political settlement. “Comfort women” is a euphemism for the women, many of them from the Korean Peninsula, who provided sex for Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
The negotiations broke down due to the change of governments in both countries. Looking back on the progress of the talks, which were held by aides to the top leaders, however, we can find that it is possible to reach a compromise if the leaders have a strong will toward reaching a resolution.
According to testimonies of high-ranking officials of the Noda and Lee governments, the Japanese side presented the following proposal to the Korean side.
First, the Japanese ambassador to South Korea will meet with former comfort women and offer an apology to them. Then, Japan and South Korea will hold a summit meeting in which the Japanese side will express humanitarian steps to be taken, such as the offering of atonement money. The humanitarian steps will be funded by the government’s budgets.
As for the comfort women issue, the Japanese government maintains the position that the issue has been settled in the Japan-South Korea agreement on the right of claims, which was concluded when the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1965.
The proposal made by the Noda government is a maximum compromise to give relief to former comfort women while maintaining the government’s stance. It is a framework similar to the Asian Women’s Fund, which was implemented, starting in 1995, based on the donations of about 500 million yen ($5 million) collected from the private sector.
In the case of the Asian Women’s Fund, however, Japanese and South Korean support groups for former comfort women criticized the program, saying, “The Japanese government is avoiding its legal responsibility.” Because of that, few former comfort women accepted the atonement money in South Korea. In the talks held last year, both the Japanese and South Korean governments paid the utmost care in order to prevent former comfort women from rejecting the atonement money.
As for the Noda government’s negotiations, current Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said, “None of the talks have been taken over by our administration (of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe).” Even in the Abe administration, however, some officials say that the government will look for ways to resolve the comfort women issue.
Current relations between Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye are so bad that they cannot hold an appropriate discussion even if they meet at international conferences. As seen last year, however, negotiations between the Noda and Lee governments progressed after the serious deterioration of bilateral relations due to Lee’s landing on one of the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan, which are administered by South Korea but are claimed by Japan.
If Japan and South Korea try to reach a political settlement, differing opinions could arise in both countries. But there is no doubt that both countries have to immediately mend relations by settling the issue of the former comfort women while they are still living.
Differing from the previous governments, the administrations of Abe and Park are blessed with stable political bases that can overcome thorny issues between the two countries.
Without letting this opportunity pass, they should take over the negotiations and immediately start working toward a final settlement.
--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 13