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(News Focus) Backlash holding up S. Korea, Japan wartime sexual slavery deal

All Headlines 14:52 April 04, 2016

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, April 4 (Yonhap) -- Some 100 days after South Korea and Japan agreed to settle the thorny issue of the latter's wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women, an unrelenting backlash from the victims and their supporters remains a stumbling block to the enforcement of the agreement, analysts here said Monday.

From staging regular protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to filing a lawsuit to invalidate the Dec. 28 agreement, victims and civic groups have voiced their vociferous opposition to the deal, that Seoul and Tokyo hopes will lay to rest a part of their troubled history.

Under the deal, Tokyo apologized for its colonial-era sexual enslavement of Korean women and agreed to provide 1 billion yen ($8.9 million) for a foundation to be established by South Korea to support the surviving victims.

On the premise that Japan conscientiously carries out its end of the deal, the two neighbors also agreed that the issue has been settled "finally and irrevocably."

But the issue seems to be far from settled, analysts said, pointing out that there has been little headway over the enforcement of the deal although the two neighboring countries have continued to hold their director-general-level consultations on how best to move forward.

Nam Ki-jeong, a professor at the Institute for Japanese Studies in Seoul National University, said that while the pact is meaningful as the two sides finally agreed to move beyond the decadeslong issue, a growing protest here against the deal will likely remain a source of "internal division" bound to complicate efforts to enforce the deal.

"With those calling the deal invalid or demanding a scrapping of it altogether, it would not be easy to persuade everyone to support the agreement," he said. "Thus, internal division stemming from their protest seems to be inevitable."

Their protest has grown stronger as the Tokyo government appears reluctant to fully atone for its wartime misdeeds.

Early this year, Tokyo once again refused to admit the forcible nature of Japan's sexual enslavement of Asian women in a report to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination -- a move that triggered an angry response from Seoul.

In the formal document to the committee, Tokyo reportedly said it had conducted a "full-scale fact-finding study on the comfort women issue since the early 1990s" but found no evidence of any coercion.

Analysts said that Japan's stance would likely continue given Japan's rightward political shift that has spurred the island country's "historical revisionism" -- a series of moves to justify or gloss over its wartime atrocities.

"The possibility of Japan continuing to deny or avoid mentioning the forcible nature of the mobilization of Asian women for slavery at front-line brothels remains high given that nationalistic political leaders are moving the political swing to the right," said Lee Ki-wan, an expert on Japan at Changwon National University.

What has further dimmed the prospect of full compliance and enforcement of the December deal is a legal battle that the victims and their supporters have been staging.

Late last month, a progressive group of lawmakers filed a petition with the Constitutional Court, arguing that last year's deal on sex slavery violated the basic rights of the victims, including the rights to the state protection of their properties and dignities. It particularly highlighted that in the process of reaching the diplomatic agreement, victims were not fully informed of the details

The petition was made on behalf of 29 surviving Korean victims and the families of the eight deceased victims. Currently, a total of 44 Korean victims remain alive.

Seoul said that it has made constant efforts to "listen to" the victims and will continue to do so in the future.

South Korean and Japanese officials, moreover, said they are in the process of preventing further worsening of public opinion in regards to the deal.

Most recently, during a bilateral summit between President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit on Thursday, the leaders reaffirmed their efforts to faithfully enforce the December deal.

In a U.S. Human Rights Council session in Geneva last month, Seoul's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se also refrained from mentioning the issue of Japan's wartime sexual enslavement, whereas he had repeatedly mentioned the human rights dimension of the issue at previous international forums.

Kim Soung-chul, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a local policy think tank, predicted that when full-fledged efforts get under way to erect the foundation that will enforce the bilateral deal, victims and their supporters could re-evaluate the deal and move toward genuinely settling the issue.

"It is still premature to evaluate the enforcement of the deal," he said. But after the foundation is established with the two sides setting in motion their full-fledged efforts to restore the dignity of the victims, things may be much better."

Observers say that efforts to establish the foundation may begin in earnest after parliamentary elections, slated for next Wednesday.

sshluck@yna.co.kr
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