South Korea’s visiting president pressed his Japanese counterpart yesterday to resolve a long-standing grievance regarding Korean women forced to serve as sexual slaves during World War II, calling it a “stumbling block” in their relations.
Japan maintains that the matter was settled by a bilateral treaty in 1965 that normalized relations and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he reiterated that stance during their meeting in the ancient capital of Kyoto.
Victims say they want compensation and the prosecution of wrongdoers.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said only 63 women who have identified themselves publicly as former wartime sex slaves are still alive, at an average age of 86. He said 16 such women died this year.
“They could all die in a few years,” Lee said, according to his spokesman Park Jeong-ha. “In such a case, [the issue] will remain a big burden the two countries cannot resolve ... We can only resolve [the issue] now.”
“South Korea and Japan should become true partners for co-prosperity and regional peace and stability. For that, I think we need to have the genuine courage of resolving as a priority the issue of comfort women, which has been a stumbling block in relations between the two countries,” Lee told Noda, according to a media pool report posted on the president’s Web site.
The issue had gained renewed attention after protesters in Seoul placed a statue of a girl representing the victims in front of the Japanese embassy on Wednesday.
The life-size statue of the girl, sitting on a chair in traditional Korean clothes, was unveiled to mark the 1,000th weekly rally for women forced to work in brothels for Japanese soldiers occupying the country.
Several of the women joined the rally along with lawmakers.
Noda called the statue “regrettable” and said he asked Lee to remove it.
“Our nation’s legal position on the issue of comfort women has already been settled,” Noda said.
He added that Japan would continue to make efforts from a “humanitarian standpoint.”
Lee said such a statue would have not been built if Japan came up with more sincere measures to resolve the issue, the presidential spokesman said.
Tokyo in 1995 initiated a fund of private donations as a way for Japan to pay former sex slaves without providing official compensation. Many comfort women have rejected the fund, demanding a government apology approved by parliament, along with compensation paid by the government.
Noda said the leaders also discussed speeding up the start of free-trade negotiations.