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(News Focus) S. Korea hails comfort women deal with Japan, but controversies linger

All Headlines 22:08 August 25, 2016

By Park Boram

SEOUL, Aug. 25 (Yonhap) -- The South Korean government hailed its deal to settle a long-running historic row with Japan over its colonial-era sexual enslavement of Korean women on Thursday, but lingering controversies remain in the runup to the neighbors' initial steps to fully implement the landmark agreement.

Following up on Seoul and Tokyo's agreement reached last December to settle the issue of Japan's sexual enslavement of women, the South Korean government announced earlier in the day that the surviving victims and the families of deceased victims will be given monetary compensation out of funds coming from Tokyo.

In the December deal, Japan committed to pay 1 billion yen (US$9.96 million) to help victims and offered a written apology by the prime minister, while South Korea agreed to put the issue behind it once and for all. Japan colonized all of Korea from 1910 through 1945.

The sexual enslavement issue badly frayed diplomatic relations between Seoul and Tokyo for decades before the neighbors ironed out the agreement amid the growing necessity for closer bilateral cooperation against North Korea's burgeoning nuclear and missile threats.

Historians estimate up to 200,000 women, mostly young Koreans who were euphemistically called comfort women, were forced to work in front-line brothels for Japanese troops during World War II.

Japan claims all colonial atrocities inflicted on South Koreans were settled with the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea in which Japan provided $800 million to settle claims stemming from the colonial rule.

But Seoul argued that the comfort women issue was an exception because the sexual enslavement only came to light after the treaty was signed.

The latest settlement isn't Japan's first attempt to end the diplomatic feud.

In 1994, Japan founded the Asian Women's Fund to distribute compensation to comfort women in South Korea as well as the Philippines, Taiwan, the Netherlands and Indonesia.

The 5 billion yen fund, however, failed to settle grievances among South Korean victims, with less than 30 percent of official government-registered victims coming forward to take compensation.

Compared to the 1994 fund, the latest Reconciliation and Healing Fund launched to fulfill the December Seoul-Tokyo agreement is a big step forward, officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here said.

The fund will facilitate the distribution of 100 million won (US$89,581) in cash to every surviving victim while offering 20 million won to the families of those who have already passed way. There are a total of 245 officially recognized victims, of which only 40 remain alive.

In addition to the size of the monetary provisions, more leeway has been given for the usage of the compensation, a meaningful advance compared to the past, a ministry official said in a background briefing, asking not to be named. About 5 million yen was provided per victim before.

The scope of the 1994 compensation's usage was limited to medical or welfare purposes, but now any kind of spending pursuant to the "recovery of victims' honor and dignity or healing of their wounds" are possible, the official said.

Despite such progress, an array of unresolved issues continues to weigh on the South Korea-Japan diplomatic achievement.

Analysts said the latest settlement fails to settle the issue of legal liability.

On multiple occasions the Japanese government has said the fund is not for reparations for its deeds and tagged the money as its contribution to heal scars, a bid apparently aimed at preventing itself from being entangled in more legal responsibilities for wartime atrocities.

South Korea is labeling the fund as "cash payments for restoring the honor and dignity of victims and healing their wounds," a stance which falls short of calls by some victims for Japan to take legal responsibility.

"With regard to (the legal issue of) whether it is an atonement payment or compensation, the government's stance remains unchanged and the Japanese government's position also remains unchanged," the ministry official said, admitting the countries' differing takes on the issue. "Under the limitations of reality, (the government) reviewed what's best for the victims who are running out of time."

Another thorny issue surrounding a statue of a girl symbolizing Korean victims remains untackled, leaving a source of potential diplomatic friction between the neighbors.

Japan had ratcheted up its demand for Seoul to remove the statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

The South Korean government is insisting, however, it does not have authority over the matter. It says Japan should not link the statue with the transfer of the funds.

"The girl statue was built by a private group, thus the government has no authority to order anything," foreign ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck said, referring to the fact that Seoul agreed to make the proper efforts of consulting with the related groups towards possible measures that could be taken.

Japan will transfer the funds in the very near term to the South Korean foundation despite the unresolved girl statue issue, the ministry official said.


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