Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Comfort Women Clash: Progress on Japan and S. Korea's Thorniest Dispute?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Comfort Women Clash: Progress on Japan and S. Korea's Thorniest Dispute?

Article excerpt

For years Washington has pressed its two closest allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea, to get over their differences and pull together in the face a rising China.

On Monday, after meeting for the first time, Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye said they will try to settle their thorniest dispute - over "comfort women" forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II - "as early as possible."

The announcement raised hopes that the two leaders may be ready to strike new compromises and that problems that have kept them apart for three years may begin to recede.

"Not many people have high expectations that this issue will be resolved quickly," says Yu Myung-hwan, a former South Korean foreign minister closely involved in relations with Japan. But he says that "Mr. Abe is a pragmatic politician and I believe he wants to put this behind him."

A deal with South Korea would help soften Abe's reputation in the region as an strong nationalist. It could also abate fears about his ambitions for Japan to take a more active military role in regional affairs.

Ms. Park, meanwhile, has signaled that Seoul is ready to decouple the comfort women issue from other items on the bilateral agenda and allow for the closer cooperation that Washington would like to see.

Galling for KoreansThat is a significant concession given how large the comfort women question looms over the Korean peninsula, which Japan occupied for decades prior to WWII. In 2011, the Korean Supreme Court ordered the government to press its case more forcefully with Japan. But the issue became especially galling to Koreans in 2014 when Abe's government began promoting a revisionist version of colonial history. It implied that Korean women were willing participants in the brothels.

Park has made it a personal crusade to see justice for the Korean comfort women. Only 47 of them remain alive, and they are mostly in their 90s. Until Monday Park had refused to meet Abe until Japan offered them new apologies and compensation.

That Park relented on this condition "indicates that South Korea is showing a more conciliatory posture towards Japan and the Japanese government has taken that opportunity," says a senior Japanese official familiar with government thinking. …

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