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‘Comfort Women’ Top Issue in South Korea, Japan Talks

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, left, is greeted by former South Korean comfort woman Kim Bock-dong, who was forced to serve for the Japanese troops as a sexual slave during World War II, as he visits the War and Women's Human Rights Museum in Seoul Wednesday, June 24, 2015. The United Nations opened a new office in Seoul on June 23 to monitor the human rights situation in North Korea. (Jung Yeon-je/Pool Photo via AP)

The leaders of South Korea and Japan have held their first formal bilateral talks since taking office.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in Seoul on Monday. A main topic was the issue of “comfort women.”

“Comfort women” in South Korea were forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s occupying military force during World War II.

The issue has divided two key military allies in Asia.

President Park had refused to meet with Prime Minister Abe until he offered a “sincere apology” and reparations to thousands of Asian “comfort women.”

Japan’s position is that a 1965 diplomatic treaty between the countries legally settled compensation for "comfort women.” That is disputed by mostly Korean “comfort women.”

After their meeting, Prime Minister Abe said the two leaders promised to increase efforts to peacefully resolve this issue.

"It's the 50th anniversary of the normalization of ties (Japan-South Korea) this year,” he said. “Keeping that in mind, we've agreed to accelerate talks for the earliest possible resolution."

President Park said it was important that surviving “comfort women” – who are now in their 80s and 90s -- were satisfied with how the issue is resolved. She said it was key to re-establishing a stable diplomatic relationship with Japan.

“I hope today's summit will heal the bitter history in a broad sense, and be a sincere one and an important opportunity to develop the two countries' relationship," Park said.

The two leaders did not hold a joint public news briefing after the talks. And neither side publicly expressed willingness to compromise on the issue.

Hosaka Yuji is a political science professor at Seoul’s Sejong University. He says the South Korean president won a diplomatic concession from the Japanese leader.

He said, “Prime Minister Abe slightly moved towards President Park’s demand on the necessity of resolving this issue by the end of this year.”

South China Sea was among issues discussed

During the meeting, Prime Minister Abe reportedly told President Park that the South China Sea situation is a common concern. He suggested the two counties cooperate about free navigation.

Japan has offered support for U.S. efforts to protect important international shipping lanes in the South China Sea. South Korea has been unwilling to publicly criticize China over the issue.

The Northeast Asian leaders did not publicly discuss rising tensions in the South China Sea. They made a statement endorsing increased dialogue and cooperation to resolve regional disputes.

Trilateral meeting talks center on trade ties, security

Japan's prime minister and South Korea's president appear with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, right, during the trilateral summit in Seoul, South Korea.
Japan's prime minister and South Korea's president appear with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, right, during the trilateral summit in Seoul, South Korea.

On Sunday, Abe and Park met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang for the first such trilateral leaders meeting in three and half years. The talks had been suspended over historical disagreements and conflicting claims to islands in the Pacific.

The three leaders agreed to work together on trade and security issues. They promised to establish a free trade zone and develop an “East Asia Market.”

The proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership could be an all-Asian version of the U.S. led Trans Pacific Partnership. Twelve Pacific economies -- including Japan and the U.S., but not South Korea or China -- recently settled on the agreement.

However, South Korea has shown interest in becoming a member.

The three Northeast Asian neighbors also restated their support for restarting “six party” international talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

In 2009, North Korea ended talks with the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. North Korea has carried out three internationally condemned nuclear tests that have increased United Nations sanctions.

I’m Mario Ritter.

Brian Padded reported this story from Seoul with contributions from Youmi Kim. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

Did you know about "comfort women" before these talks between China, Japan and South Korea? How should nations deal with their histories in foreign policy?


Words in This Story

bilateral – adj. between two groups or countries

trilateral -- adj. between three groups or countries

reparations – n. something (usually money) that is given as a way to correct a mistake; money that a country or group that loses a war pays because of damage, injury or deaths that were caused

accelerate –v. to move faster or gain speed

stable –adj. in a good state or condition that is not easily changed or likely to change

concession –n. something that is allowed or agreed to end a conflict or reach an agreement