SKorea, Japan in talks on WWII 'comfort women'

By Alex Jensen, Thursday, May 15, 2014

SEOUL - South Korea and Japan resumed talks Thursday aimed at resolving grievances over the sexual enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese military during World War II.

The meeting in Tokyo between South Korea and Japan's respective director generals - Lee Sang-deok and Junichi Ihara - was a follow-up to their first official negotiations last month in Seoul.

Early Thursday Lee flew to Japan for a two-day visit aiming to discuss a range of issues, also including North Korea and Tokyo's military ambitions, according to government officials.

The talks on sexual slavery represent the first of their kind at this level, as Japan has long claimed it settled the issue as part of a treaty in 1965 that normalized bilateral ties following the Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula between 1910-45.

Up to 200,000 women, predominantly from Korea and China, are estimated to have been forced into wartime sexual slavery as so-called "comfort women" by the Japanese military.

Since 1992, 55 surviving victims have protested weekly in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

Their stated aims include pressuring Tokyo to acknowledge the full extent of their sexual enslavement as a war crime, to officially apologize and to take related legal action, according to the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.

The South Korean government has also repeatedly insisted that ties with Japan can only improve when Tokyo demonstrates sincerity over the "comfort women" issue.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye waited more than a year after taking office before officially meeting her Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - and only then in the presence of United States President Barack Obama.

Abe provoked outrage from Seoul in 2007 when he suggested to Japanese reporters that "comfort women" had not been coerced into service by the former Japanese Imperial Army, a position that contrasted with the so-called Kono Statement of 1993.

Then government spokesperson Yohei Kono had issued an apology for the women's suffering, while a fund made up of private donations rather than government money was set up to help the former sex slaves in 1995 - although both fell short of the surviving women's demands.

The U.S. has been putting pressure on the Abe administration in recent months to mend ties with Seoul given their trilateral alliance.

Last month Obama told reporters while visiting Seoul that the Japan's abuse of sex slaves "was a terrible, egregious violation of human rights."

Earlier this year, Abe did vow not to revise Japan's previous apologies over the issue, before Seoul and Tokyo agreed to hold regular official talks at director-general level.

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