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Japan's concession a testament to desire to settle 'comfort women' issue

The Japanese government's green light to make cash payments to former wartime "comfort women" and their bereaved families in South Korea through a fund despite its initial reluctance is a testament to Tokyo's eagerness to lead the relief measure to a full settlement of the comfort women issue, which has long been a thorn in bilateral relations.

Tokyo apparently aspires to improve Japan-South Korea ties through the bilateral agreement on Aug. 24 over the details of the cash payments -- around 10 million yen each to former comfort women alive and some 2 million yen each to the families of deceased comfort women -- amid the deteriorating security environment in the region due to North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs and China's maritime advancements in the East and South China seas.

Tokyo had previously been reserved about cash payments to former comfort women and their bereaved families as it has upheld a position that Japan and South Korea have already settled the wartime reparation issue under the 1965 Agreement between Japan and the Republic of Korea concerning the Settlement of Problems in regard to Property and Claims and Economic Cooperation. Tokyo had adamantly claimed that the 1 billion yen contribution to the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation set up by South Korea was not meant to be compensation to former comfort women. As the Asian Women's Fund, which was set up by Japan in 1995 to support former comfort women and was dissolved in 2007, paid up to 5 million yen to each victim, payments from Japan's latest contribution had been expected to be no more than that amount.

However, the latest agreement doubled the amount to be paid to surviving former comfort women to 10 million yen each apparently because the full 1 billion yen contribution was funded by the Japanese government, as opposed to the Asian Women's Fund that relied on private donations as resources. Tokyo obviously regarded swift improvement of bilateral ties as indispensable even at the cost of a domestic backlash from the conservative wing.

Behind Japan's concessions lies a change in its relations with China. After North Korea's nuclear test earlier this year, South Korea decided to allow the deployment of the cutting-edge Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system by U.S. forces in South Korea, sparking a strong backlash from China. "South Korea has shifted toward Japan and the United States in security terms," said a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official. While South Korea and China have jointly slammed Japan over the latter's perception of historical issues, the latest future-oriented move between Japan and South Korea may well prompt China to compromise with Japan.

In the meantime, it is unclear whether the payments agreed upon by Japan and South Korea on Aug. 24 would be strictly limited to purposes including medical care for former comfort women as demanded by Japan in order to prevent the money from being regarded as part of compensation. The cash amounts are also expected to be effectively flat because "it would be unfair if the sums were different from one person to another," according to a source close to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

There are strong public calls in South Korea for Japan to recognize its legal responsibility over the comfort women issue, and a dispute over a girl's statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul representing the plight of comfort women is likely to prolong while there are calls within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to have it removed. Tokyo and Seoul are expected to weigh domestic opinion in steering their diplomatic course since their bilateral relations could once again be strained if public opinion in Japan against the girl's statue intensifies with no prospect of it being removed.

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