South Korea and Japan held rare high-level talks yesterday on the extremely sensitive issue of wartime sex slavery, which has contributed to a virtual freeze in diplomatic ties.
Kyodo news agency cited an unnamed government official as saying the Japanese side would indicate Tokyo is mulling an official apology and money for the so-called “comfort women” forced to work in military brothels.
The meeting was between Japanese Ministry of Foreign Asia and Oceania Affairs Bureau head Junichi Ihara and South Korean Director-General for Northeast Asian Affairs Lee Sang-deok.
Seoul said the talks were the first time high-level officials had met to discuss the comfort woman issue in isolation.
Relations between Tokyo and Seoul are at their lowest ebb in years, mired in emotive disputes linked to Japan’s 1910 to 1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.
As US President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Japan and South Korea next week, there is renewed impetus for the two key US allies to heal their fractured relationship, despite domestic pressures on both sides not to bend.
The comfort women issue has deeply divided the neighbors — frustrating Washington at a time of growing regional instability, with China’s military build-up snowballing and North Korea warning that it may carry out another nuclear test.
Japan has long maintained that all issues relating to the colonial period were settled under a 1965 bilateral treaty that normalized diplomatic ties with South Korea.
According to the Japanese government official cited by Kyodo, the offer of another apology and further compensation would be formalized only after confirming the issue “has been completely settled,” so that South Korea never brings it up again, but said Tokyo was considering a direct apology by Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Koro Bessho, a letter bearing the name of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and disbursement of Japanese government-funded financial aid.
Japan previously offered money to former sex slaves through the Asian Women’s Fund, a private body set up at Tokyo’s initiative in 1995 and run until 2007.
Some survivors refused the cash because it did not come directly from the government.
Japanese politicians have expressed exasperation at Seoul’s repeated requests for contrition.
Repeated wavering since the apology among senior right-wing politicians has contributed to a feeling in South Korea that Japan is in denial and not sufficiently remorseful.