South Korea, Japan reach breakthrough settlement on WWII sex slaves

Flowers are placed on a memorial wall commemorating the late former South and North Korean "comfort women" at the War and Women's Human Rights Museum" in Seoul. South Korea and Japan reached a breakthrough settlement Monday to resolve a decades-long dispute regarding Korean women forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

South Korea and Japan reached a breakthrough settlement of $8.3 million to resolve a decades-long dispute regarding Korean women forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military during World War II.

The agreement, announced Monday, aims to resolve the emotional and historic grievance South Korea has held since Japan's colonial occupation, when tens of thousands of women from around Asia, many of them Korean, were sent to military brothels to provide sex to Japanese soldiers. Justice for these "comfort women," as they are euphemistically called, has been a deeply-contested political issue between the two countries for years.

The pledge from the Japanese government, about 1 billion yen, will establish a foundation to provide support for the victims. It was accompanied by a statement from the Japanese foreign minister saying that Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, "expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences."

The new agreement comes as both governments are eager to move forward from this historic episode.

Abe told reporters that the agreement was based on his commitment to stop future generations from having to repeatedly apologize. After personally calling South Korean president Park Geun-hye to reiterate his apology, Abe said "Japan and South Korea are now entering a new era. … We should not drag this problem into the next generation."

For Seoul, the urgency comes as former sex slaves are passing away from old age without closure to the incident. "Most of victims are at an advanced age and nine died this year alone," Park said in a statement. "I hope the mental pains of the elderly comfort women will be eased."

But the agreement does not completely resolve the tensions between the Asian counterparts. The issues has been "officially resolved" before; the 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic relations between the two countries offered $800 million for compensation for colonial-era damages and there have been previous apologies from Japanese officials. But South Korea has been reluctant to accept the apologies because Japan has not accepted formal, legal responsibilities for the comfort women and has allegedly erased its wartime atrocities from its history books.

In line with this language, the Japanese foreign minister described the new pledge not as a legal compensation, but as a "project to relieve emotional scars and provide healing to the victims."

Former comfort woman Lee Young-su, 88, rejected the new agreement due to this language. "I don't think comfort women victims were even considered [in this resolution]" because Japan had still not taken legal responsibility, she told South Korea's Yonhap news.

A South Korean NGO called "Justice to the Comfort women" also rejected the settlement, written in a post on Facebook, because the statement was ambiguous and Abe did not even make it himself. "Therefore, it is impossible to accept today's apology as a sincere one," the post said.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said Seoul considers the agreement "final and irreversible" as long as Japan faithfully follows through with its promises.

All in all, the deal came as good news to the U.S. which has been eager to see the two regional democracies establish better relations to create an unified front against the growing nuclear threat from North Korea.

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