SEOUL: South Korea and Japan reached a landmark agreement Monday on the thorny issue of wartime sex slaves that has long soured relations, with Tokyo offering survivors a one-billion yen payment.
The deal would be “final and irreversible” if Japan fulfils its responsibilities, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se said after talks with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida.
Kishida said Japan agreed to offer a one billion yen ($8.3 million) payment for Korean “comfort women” who were sexually enslaved by Japanese troops during World War II.
“It’s not compensation. It’s a project to recover the honour and dignity of all comfort women and to heal their emotional wounds,” he said.
“The comfort women issue occurred with the involvement of the Japanese military and the Japanese government acutely feels its responsibility.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offers an “apology and repentance from the bottom of his heart” to the victims, Kishida said.
“I think the agreement we reached is historic and is a ground-breaking achievement,” he said.
The fate of the 46 surviving South Korean comfort women is a hugely emotional issue in the country and a source of much of the distrust that has marred relations with its former colonial ruler for decades.
The United States has long pressed its two major Asian allies to resolve their disputes.
Under Monday’s agreement Seoul will try to relocate a statue symbolising comfort women which currently stands in front of the Japanese embassy through consultations with relevant NGOs, Yun said.
Tokyo has given priority to relocating the statue, seen as an embarrassing eyesore and an insult to Japan.
The South Korean foreign ministry said earlier on its Facebook page that the statue was erected by civilians and the government had no say over its location.
Yun said Seoul would refrain from bringing up the comfort women issue again in international forums such as the United Nations.
“I am very pleased to declare the successful conclusion of the difficult negotiations before the year is out, the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties,” he said.
Up to 200,000 women, many of them Korean, are estimated to have been sexually enslaved by Japan during World War II. They were euphemistically known as “comfort women”.
Seoul has demanded a formal apology and compensation for the survivors.
Kishida said that with Monday’s agreement, relations between Japan and South Korea would develop into “a future-oriented new era”.
The deal, he said, “will not only benefit our country but also largely contribute to the region’s peace and stability”.
Japan has long maintained that the dispute was settled in a 1965 agreement which saw Tokyo make a total payment of $800 million in grants or loans to Korea, which it ruled from 1910-1945.
South Korea said that treaty did not cover compensation for victims of wartime crimes against humanity such as the mobilisation of comfort women, and did not absolve the Japanese government of its legal responsibility.
When South Korean President Park Geun-Hye met Abe in Seoul last month for a rare summit, they agreed to speed up talks on the issue.
Japan issued a 1993 statement that expressed “sincere apologies and remorse” to the women “who suffered immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women”.
Abe, who once added fuel to the row by questioning whether comfort women were really “forced” against their will to serve Japanese soldiers, has said his government stands by the 1993 statement.
Before last month’s meeting in Seoul, Park had rebuffed all previous bilateral summit proposals, arguing that Tokyo had yet to properly atone for its wartime past and colonial rule.