SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan met Monday to try to resolve a decades-long impasse over Korean women forced into Japanese military-run brothels during World War II.
The issue of former Korean sex slaves, euphemistically known as “comfort women,” is the biggest source of friction in ties between Seoul and Tokyo, two thriving democracies, trade partners and staunch U.S. allies who have seen animosity rise since the 2012 inauguration of hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Japan has high hopes of a breakthrough of some kind, and its diplomats have floated possible solutions, involving money and apologies, to local media. But there is deep skepticism in Seoul, where Japan’s many past apologies and efforts at private compensation have been seen as insufficient.
Last month, the countries’ leaders resumed formal talks after a 3 ½-year hiatus and agreed to try to make progress on the sex slave issue. Japan has been heartened by South Korean courts recently acquitting a Japanese reporter charged with defaming South Korea’s president and refusing to review a complaint by a South Korean seeking individual compensation for Japan’s forceful mobilization of workers during colonial days.
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Many South Koreans feel lingering bitterness from the legacy of Japan’s brutal colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945. But South Korean officials have also faced calls to improve ties with Japan, the world’s No. 3 biggest economy and a regional powerhouse, not least from U.S. officials eager for a strong united front against a rising China and North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear-armed missiles that could target the American mainland.
Japanese media reported that Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida plans to deliver a handwritten apology by Abe when he meets with his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se. An unidentified diplomatic source says Tokyo may also offer more than 100 million yen ($830,000) for the women, but Seoul wants at least 1 billion yen, Kyodo news agency reported. South Korea’s Foreign Ministry on Monday could not immediately confirm the Kyodo report.
Some in South Korea feel that Seoul would struggle to agree to anything that doesn’t also acknowledge that Japan has a legal responsibility for the women. Japan, for its part, has long argued that the issue was settled by a 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic ties and was accompanied by more than $800 million in economic aid and loans from Tokyo to Seoul.
Historians say tens of thousands of women from around Asia, many of them Korean, were sent to front-line military brothels to provide sex to Japanese soldiers. In South Korea, there are 46 such surviving former sex slaves, mostly in their late 80s or early 90s.
Better relations between South Korea and Japan are a priority for Washington. The two Northeast Asian countries together host about 80,000 U.S. troops and are members of now-stalled regional talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in return for aid.