South Korea Urges Japan to Compensate Former Sex Slaves
By MARTIN FACKLER
Published: December 18, 2011
¶ TOKYO President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea used what was supposed to be a routine visit to Japan on Sunday to press for compensation for Korean women who were forced to work as prostitutes by the Japanese military during World War II. He called the issue a “burden” on relations between the two nations.
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¶ Mr. Lee devoted more than half of an hourlong meeting with his Japanese host, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, to urge a speedy resolution of the issue, a longstanding sore point between the two countries. Historians say that thousands of women, many of them from the Korean Peninsula or areas of China that were occupied by Japanese troops, were forced to work as sex slaves during the war.
¶ According to South Korean and Japanese officials, at the meeting on Sunday, Mr. Lee told Mr. Noda that time was running out to resolve the issue during the victims’ lifetimes. Of all the women who have come forward over the years to say they were forced to work at Japanese military brothels, only 63 remain alive, and their average age is 86. Mr. Lee told Mr. Noda that 16 of the former sex slaves, whom the Japanese forces euphemistically called “comfort women,” had died in the last year, the officials said.
¶ “I think we need to have the courage of resolving, as a priority, the issue of comfort women, which has been a stumbling block in relations,” Mr. Lee told Mr. Noda, according to a South Korean government statement.
¶ Mr. Noda told reporters that he had responded to Mr. Lee by repeating Japan’s position on the issue: that the 1965 treaty that normalized relations between South Korea and Japan also ended all claims for compensation related to the war or to Japan’s harsh rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. But he also signaled flexibility by saying that Japan was willing to make efforts “from a humanitarian standpoint.”
¶ Many South Koreans say the 1965 treaty does not apply to the sex slaves case because the issue had not yet come to light when it was signed. It emerged only in the 1990s, when some of the aging former victims began to speak out.
¶ Mr. Lee’s focus on the issue on Sunday seemed to surprise many Japanese, who expected his visit to center on a trade pact and other economic matters. Mr. Lee, who was born in Japan during the war and is generally seen as friendly toward Japan, had not raised the issue at any previous summit meeting with Japan since taking office in 2008.
¶ The issue has attracted growing attention in South Korea. On Wednesday, demonstrators erected a bronze statue of a girl, representing the victims, facing the entrance to the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, marking the 1,000th weekly protest at that location to demand compensation. Japan has asked the South Korean government to quickly remove the statue, but so far South Korean officials have refused to do so.
¶ In August, a South Korean court told the government to make more forceful diplomatic efforts to seek compensation.
¶ Japanese officials have apologized individually and in 1995 helped set up a fund from private donations to compensate the former sex slaves. But many victims rejected that money, saying that they wanted official compensation from the government.