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Japan-South Korea accord on 'comfort women' leaves ambiguities

In the latest accord reached by the governments of Japan and South Korea on the so-called "comfort women" issue, Japan did not back down from its position that the issue had been resolved in a 1965 treaty with South Korea. Instead, the two governments agreed that South Korea would establish a foundation for former comfort women, for which the Japanese government would provide the funds. There remain, however, gaps between what the two governments are seeking, which will require future political maneuvering.

    According to the latest agreement, the South Korean government will establish a new foundation to support former comfort women, for which the Japanese government will supply some 1 billion yen. Unlike the Asian Women's Fund, which was funded in part by donations from the private sector and dissolved in 2007, the new foundation's monies will come solely by the Japanese government. The arrangement implies that the Japanese government is taking a certain degree of responsibility for the comfort women issue, making the agreement more acceptable for Seoul, which had been calling on Japan to explicitly acknowledge its responsibility as a state.

    Meanwhile, the Japanese government, which has continued to argue that the comfort women issue was completely and definitively resolved in the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, will be providing the funds for the new foundation under the pretext that it is taking "moral responsibility." According to a Japanese government source, the cash amount ended up being much higher than initially planned, because "it would be difficult to persuade former comfort women to accept the accord if the amount were too small." Asked about the Japanese government's provision of funds for the foundation, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida emphasized to reporters, "They are not reparations."

    At a joint press conference held by Kishida and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se following the accord, Kishida said the Japanese government is "painfully aware of its responsibilities." He also explained that the prime minister would express a "heartfelt apology and remorse." The wording the prime minister will use will be almost exactly the same as those in letters sent by past prime ministers to former comfort women -- which was the limit of what the Japanese government was willing to accept. As for the method by which the prime minister's sentiments will be communicated to former comfort women, Kishida said, "That is the job of the foundation. We will move forward in adherence with the Japan-South Korea agreement."

    At the Japan-South Korea summit held in November, South Korean President Park Geun-hye sought a resolution to the comfort women issue that "the victims would be able to accept, and that the public will find satisfactory" as a condition for reaching a final agreement. Meanwhile, the Japanese government demanded that South Korea put in writing that, after an agreement is reached, the issue would not be brought up again. Ultimately, both Kishida and Yun stated that the agreement reached on Dec. 28 was "final and irreversible," using the term "irreversible" for the first time. Tokyo believes that the document released at the joint foreign ministerial press conference is proof of Seoul's definitive commitment to this promise.

    However, the fate of the statue of a girl in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul -- installed in remembrance of former comfort women -- is still unclear. South Korea said merely that it would "take the measures necessary," while Kishida took it one step further, saying the statue will be "appropriately relocated." The end result remains ambiguous, with both sides going only as far as they were willing to go, respectively.

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