Respond to 'comfort women' issue sincerely, Tokyo told

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Respond to 'comfort women' issue sincerely, Tokyo told

A bronze statue of a young girl representing comfort women victims near the former Japanese embassy in central Seoul is pictured Jan. 8, the day a Seoul district court made a landmark ruling that the Japanese government is responsible for paying damages to victims of its wartime sexual slavery. [YONHAP]

A bronze statue of a young girl representing comfort women victims near the former Japanese embassy in central Seoul is pictured Jan. 8, the day a Seoul district court made a landmark ruling that the Japanese government is responsible for paying damages to victims of its wartime sexual slavery. [YONHAP]

 
Seoul’s Foreign Ministry urged Tokyo to make “sincere efforts” to heal the wounds of the victims of the Japanese military’s wartime sexual slavery Saturday after Japan’s top envoy issued a statement protesting a recent Korean court decision on the so-called comfort women issue.
 
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi in a statement called the Seoul court decision earlier this month "extremely regrettable and absolutely unacceptable," claiming that the “ruling clearly goes against international law and an agreement between the Japanese and South Korean governments.”  
 
Motegi urged Korea to “immediately take appropriate measures” and to correct this “violation of international law.”
 
The Seoul Central District Court ruled on Jan. 8 that the Japanese government must pay 100 million won ($90,400) to each of the 12 women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.  
 
Tokyo has maintained that the case should be dropped based on state immunity, a principle in international law that keeps domestic courts from trying civil cases brought against another state.
 
However, the Seoul district court rejected Tokyo’s claims of state immunity, saying Japan had committed systemic crimes against humanity in violation of international standards and norms.  
 
The ruling concluded an arduous legal battle lasting more than seven years and recognized the physical and psychological pain suffered by the victims, euphemistically referred to as comfort women. Of the 12 plaintiffs, only five are still alive.
 
The ruling was finalized Saturday as the defendant, the Japanese government, did not appeal. 
 
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi speaks at an upper house plenary session at the parliament in Tokyo on Jan. 18. [AP/YONHAP]

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi speaks at an upper house plenary session at the parliament in Tokyo on Jan. 18. [AP/YONHAP]

Just hours after Motegi’s statement, the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged Tokyo to “face squarely that the Japanese military’s comfort women issue is an issue of infringement of human rights and an unprecedented violation of women’s rights during wartime,” in violation of international human rights norms and international laws.
 
The ministry in a statement continued, “Our government, based on consultations with the comfort women victims, will continue our efforts to resolve the issue to the end, but Japan, too, will have to show sincere efforts to restore the honor and dignity of the victims and heal the wounds in their hearts based on the spirit of responsibility, apology and remorse expressed by itself previously."
 
The Korean government said it “will not seek any additional claims from Japan at the government level,” but the ministry also noted it “has no right or authority to prevent the victims from raising the issue.”
 
The ministry reiterated that the Korean government “recognizes” that the so-called comfort women deal of 2015 was an official agreement between the two governments. But it added that “the real problem cannot be truly resolved only by an agreement between the governments that does not reflect the stances of the victims.”
 
Seoul and Tokyo under previous administrations attempted to resolve the wartime slavery issue in a “final and irreversible” deal signed on Dec. 26, 2015, which included an apology by the Japanese government and a 1-billion-yen ($9.6 billion) fund for the victims.  
 
The agreement provoked an immediate backlash from some civic organizations and survivors who felt blindsided by the deal and claimed that the Japanese government should take clearer legal responsibility. The Moon Jae-in administration said it would not scrap the 2015 bilateral deal, despite it being “flawed,” but has also underscored that the agreement is not a true resolution to the issue of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery.
 
The Foreign Ministry however stressed that the Korean government will “closely examine the impact of the ruling on diplomatic relations and make every effort to continue constructive and future-oriented cooperation between Korea and Japan.”  
 
Seoul and Tokyo have faced a deterioration in bilateral relations in recent years over historical disputes and Japan’s export restrictions on Korea.  
 
Tokyo has similarly protested the Korean Supreme Court rulings in late 2018 ordering two Japanese companies to compensate wartime forced labor victims. The legal procedures to enable the selling of the assets of the Japanese companies in Korea have been finalized, and Tokyo has threatened further retaliation if the steps are taken to liquidate them.  
 
Japan claims that the 1965 treaty which normalized relations resolved all issues of compensation related to its 1910-1945 colonial rule of Korea.  
 
A group of lawmakers of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party last week demanded the Japanese government take stronger action against Korea over the comfort women ruling, such as taking the case to the International Court of Justice.
 
In a speech at the Japanese Diet on Jan. 18, Motegi called the comfort women ruling “abnormal” and said he will “continue to strongly demand an appropriate response by the South Korean side.” 
 
The Moon administration has stressed a two-track approach to Japan, attempting to separate historical disputes from areas where the two countries can cooperate to improve ties.  
 
President Moon Jae-in in a New Year’s press conference on Jan. 18 acknowledged that the comfort women ruling “is truthfully a bit perplexing” amid such tensions with Tokyo, stressing the need for “future-oriented” relations with Japan.
 
Japan’s Nikkei in an op-ed Sunday described in reference to the press conference remarks that there are “indications of change in President Moon."    
 
Seoul has indicated the Tokyo Olympics slated for this summer is an opportunity to improve frayed diplomatic relations, though experts recognize it would be difficult to overcome the differences. Moon recently named Chung Eui-yong, a former national security adviser, as his new foreign minister nominee. The two countries have also exchanged new ambassadors, signaling a fresh start to diplomacy amid limited in-person contact because of the Covid-19 pandemic.  
 
BY SARAH KIM   [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
 
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