East Asia

Japan considering paying for ‘comfort women’ support

Agencies UPDATED :

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The Japanese government is in the final stages of discussions on using government funds to pay for medical and welfare services for the surviving 46 South Korean ‘comfort women’, the Asahi newspaper reported, citing sources with knowledge of the negotiations.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida will visit South Korea on December 28 for talks with his counterpart Yun Byung-se on the sensitive issue, it was announced on Friday. The Japanese government is considering setting up a new fund for the women, the Asahi reported.

According to the Asahi, the main focus of the negotiations have been the wording that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will use in a message or letter to the surviving women, a visit by the Japanese ambassador to the women and health and welfare services for the women paid for with Japanese government money.

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The Japanese government has not publicly revealed any proposal it has to South Korea to settle the issue, but the source said the fund is one idea and Japan is considering shouldering over 100 million yen (US$831,276) for the fund.

The Japanese side also intends to call on South Korea to guarantee that the comfort women issue is settled once and for all and put this into writing in an agreement envisioned during the next summit talks, the source said.

Abe agreed last month with South Korean President Park Geun Hye to speed up talks to address the issue of women, including women from the Korean Peninsula.

“The comfort women issue is a difficult one but I will do the best I can until the last minute (to make progress on the issue),” Kishida told reporters in Tokyo, announcing his trip at the instruction of Abe to visit South Korea by the end of this year.

Building on the momentum of the Abe-Park meeting, Tokyo and Seoul have engaged in working-level talks to settle the comfort women issue.

Differences over the comfort women issue had prevented Abe and Park from holding a one-on-one meeting after they took office in 2012 and 2013, respectively. The first such meeting between the two leaders finally took place on November 2 in Seoul.

Bilateral relations have been badly strained over second world war-related issues including comfort women, but there have been positive developments recently such as the Seoul Central District Court’s acquittal last week of a Japanese journalist who had been charged with defaming Park in an article published in August last year.

On Wednesday, South Korea’s Constitutional Court said it is not in a position to rule on the constitutionality of the 1965 Korea-Japan agreement that Japan claims settled all issues of individual compensation to victims of forced labour.

South Korea has been calling on the Japanese government to accept its legal responsibility and settle the comfort women issue in a manner acceptable to the survivors, such as through an apology and compensation.

Japan maintains that the issue of compensation was fully settled under a 1965 treaty with South Korea that normalised their diplomatic ties.

While he did not offer any details of their negotiations or what he sees as a possible breakthrough that could settle the long-stalled dispute, Kishida said, “I will do my utmost to move forward Japan-South Korea relations by the end of this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of bilateral ties.”

As one way to settle the issue, Japan is considering sending letters from Abe to the former comfort women in an apparent expression of regret.

The new fund will be based on a government-run programme to help provide medical and welfare care to some of the former comfort women, the diplomatic source said.

The programme is a follow-up to the now-defunct Asian Women’s Fund, a pool of private donations which was set up at Tokyo’s initiative in 1995 to provide atonement money for former comfort women as well as help improve medical and welfare services for the aging women.

But many of the former comfort women refused to receive money from the AWF and sought official compensation. The AWF dissolved itself in 2007.

To this government-run programme, Japan allocated about 11.2 million yen in fiscal 2015 for the part of South Korea. The plan is to increase the size of this programme 10-fold.

Yonhap News Agency said it remains unclear whether South Korea will accept Japan’s offer, whatever it is.

Kishida’s trip would be “very meaningful itself. He is unlikely to come here empty-handed. But it’s hard to predict the outcome (of talks),” Yonhap quoted a South Korean government official as saying.

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Another official said what’s more important is whether or not the victims can accept Japan’s offer, it said.

Japan also plans to call on Park to visit Japan at an early date next year, should the foreign ministers reach a broad agreement on a written guarantee not to bring up the comfort women issue in the future, the source said.

Only 47 such women in South Korea remain alive and most of them are approaching their 90s, Park said at an event in Washington during her U.S. trip in October.

Bloomberg and Kyodo

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