After 70 Years, Japan and South Korea Settle Dispute Over Wartime Sex Slaves

Even with this agreement in place, many are still seeking a better resolution

comfort women
An 89 year-old Korean 'comfort woman' Kim Bok-Dong protests in front of the embassy of Japan in Berlin to demand an official apology from Japan in September, 2015. Florian Boillot/Demotix/Corbis

Japan and South Korea announced Monday that the two countries have settled a dispute dating back 70 years over how to compensate Korean women forced into sex slavery during World War II. Now, for the first time, the Japanese government will directly compensate the remaining survivors. While the deal is being trumpeted as a step forward in the relations between the two countries, not everyone is ready to forgive and forget.

During World War II, when the Japanese military ran a brutal colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula, it forced hundreds of thousands of women and girls from occupied Korea, China and the Philippines into sex slavery. The “comfort women,” as they were colloquially referred to as, were forced by the Japanese Imperial Army to work in brothels servicing Japanese soldiers, Anna Fifield reports for the Washington Post. While historians estimate that as many as 200,000 women were forced into sex slavery during the war, due to social stigma, only 238 South Korean women came forward publicly. Today, just 46 of these women remain alive.

According to the new agreement, the Japanese government will put 1 billion Yen ($8.3 million) into a fund that will provide medical, nursing and other services to the surviving Korean comfort women. The wording of the deal states that the fund will provide "support" and sponsor "projects for recovering the honour and dignity and healing the psychological wounds" but it does not specify if the money will directly compensate the women or their families. As part of the agreement, Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, has also formally apologized, Choe Sang-Hun reports for the New York Times.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said in a statement that the issue is considered “irreversibly” resolved, as long as the Japanese government sticks to its side of the deal, Holly Yan, KJ Kwon and Junko Ogura write for CNN. But this isn’t the first time the two countries have reached an official resolution on making amends to the surviving women. After being presented with overwhelming evidence that many women were being used as slaves, the Japanese government formally acknowledged and apologized for forcing women into brothels during the war in 1993.

But many South Koreans felt the apology didn’t go far enough toward addressing the pain and suffering caused to these women during the war. In 2011, a bronze statue of a girl symbolizing the comfort women was installed in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul to call attention to their plight, as activists and surviving comfort women continued to be outraged by comments by some Japanese politicians that the comfort women were prostitutes, Sang-Hun writes.

Though this is the first time the Japanese government is setting aside taxpayer money to compensate the women, an important voice was missing from the negotiation table: the victims.

“The agreement does not reflect the views of former comfort women,” said Lee Yong-soo, a survivor herself, during a news conference, Sang-Hun reports. “I will ignore it completely.”

In her statement, Yong-soo said the new deal falls short because it does not require the Japanese government to admit legal responsibility and make formal reparations. She and other activists were also unhappy that the agreement called for Japan and South Korea to stop criticizing each other in public over the comfort women issue, as well as South Korea’s indication that it will look into removing the statue from its place in front of the Japanese embassy, Sang-Hun writes.

“The women were missing from the negotiation table, and they must not be sold short in a deal that is more about political expediency than justice,” Hiroka Shoji, a researcher with Amnesty International, in a statement in the Guardian. “Until the women get the full and unreserved apology from the Japanese government for the crimes committed against them, the fight for justice goes on.”

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