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Japan-S. Korea 'comfort women' issue one step closer to settlement with launch of fund

SEOUL -- With the launch of a foundation for former "comfort women" -- to be financed by Japan -- in South Korea about seven months after Tokyo and Seoul reached an agreement on the wartime comfort women issue in December last year, the South Korean government aims to speed up the implementation of support measures for those women amid strong public opposition against the bilateral accord.

"It's important to settle the issue while people who are directly involved are still alive," said Kim Tae-hyun, head of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, in citing a comment by one of the former comfort women during a news conference on July 28. Kim said another former comfort woman told her, "Thank you for reaching an agreement while I'm still alive."

Kim told the news conference that the former comfort women proposed various ideas over the use of the 1 billion yen fund to be paid by the Japanese government, such as using the money to supplement everyday expenses and establishing a scholarship program for young people, and emphasized that most former comfort women have agreed to receive support from the organization.

However, disapproval of the Tokyo-Seoul bilateral accord remains strong in South Korea. Kim could not even get permission to meet with three former comfort women represented by "the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan," a support group for former comfort women that has strong influence on the South Korean public.

As Kim stated, there are some comfort women who approve of the bilateral agreement at informal meetings, but none of the 40 surviving former comfort women has publically come out to say that they accept the accord.

The South Korean government has been asking Ahn Shin-kwon, director of the House of Sharing -- a residence of former comfort women in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province -- to assume the head of the foundation, but Ahn has said, "There is no way I can take a job to help the government when elderly women (former comfort women) are opposed to the agreement."

About 10 people, including female students, entered the press conference room on July 28 before Kim spoke to the media and occupied the room for about half an hour. They caused a scene, screaming, "We don't want 1 billion yen," before they were escorted out by police. The South Korean media, however, has not covered this incident with a critical tone.

At the same time, a recent survey has shown a slight change in public opinion among South Koreans. In an opinion poll conducted in South Korea by the East Asia Institute (EAI) in June and July, 37.6 percent said they did not support the Japan-South Korea agreement on the comfort women issue while 28.1 percent approved. Considering that another poll carried out right after the accord was reached showed a 54 percent disapproval rate, the latest poll suggests that opposition against the bilateral accord has somewhat softened.

Regarding the reasons why they did not support the bilateral agreement, 66 percent of respondents said opinions of those directly involved in the issue are not reflected in the accord, which was the most common answer. Fifty-one percent criticized that Japan's legal responsibility is not made clear in the agreement and that Japan has not offered an appropriate apology.

The South Korean government believes that disapproval of the bilateral accord might drop even further if the former comfort women actually started receiving grants from the foundation and hopes to provide the former comfort women with funds in a timely manner.

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