World News

South Korea Says It Won’t Scrap Sex Slaves Accord With Japan

Posted January 9, 2018 9:42 a.m. EST

HONG KONG — South Korea said Tuesday that it would not undo a 2015 agreement with Japan to shelve a longtime dispute over women who were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military during World War II.

The agreement has been criticized in South Korea, where many people don’t believe that Japan has fully made amends for its wartime legacy.

Under the 2015 accord, Japan apologized and promised to pay $8.8 million for care for survivors. The deal was reached by the government of President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in 2016 after months of turmoil and street protests. She was formally removed from office in March 2017 and is now facing charges of corruption and abuse of power.

A panel appointed by the government of her successor, President Moon Jae-in, found the government had failed to represent the victims fully when it reached the deal by not having Japan take “legal” responsibility and provide official reparations.

That created an opportunity for Moon to back out of the agreement, but at the risk of upending South Korea’s relationship with Japan at a time when the countries are united in confronting North Korea over its weapons programs. The United States, the biggest ally of South Korea and Japan, had praised the 2015 agreement, saying cooperation between the two major Asian democracies was important for regional stability.

Under the “final and irreversible” settlement over the sex slaves, Japan was to make an apology in addition to providing the money for the survivors’ care. South Korea in turn pledged to not criticize Japan over the issue.

South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, said Tuesday that the 2015 agreement could not be considered “a genuine resolution” of the issue. But she added that there was no denying an official deal had been made and said Seoul wouldn’t push to renegotiate it. South Korea will set aside its own $8.8 million fund to care for the survivors and continue discussions on what to do with the equivalent amount from Japan, Kang said.

Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, said Tuesday that Tokyo would ask Seoul to carry out the deal under its original terms.

“There is no room for any compromise on that agreement,” he said.

The treatment of the women, known euphemistically as “comfort women,” is one of the most painful legacies of Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to the end of World War II in 1945. Tens of thousands and possibly hundreds of thousands of women were compelled to work in brothels that served the Japanese military. In addition to Koreans, women from the Philippines, China and other countries invaded by Japan were forced into sexual slavery.

In 2011, activists installed a statue honoring the women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, touching off a diplomatic furor. Since then, similar statues have been placed in other cities, including San Francisco and Hong Kong. When activists placed another in South Korea’s second-largest city, Busan, in 2016, Japan temporarily recalled its ambassador from Seoul and consul general from Busan.

Seoul invited a survivor to meet President Donald Trump during his visit to South Korea in November, which Japan criticized as not keeping with the spirit of the 2015 agreement.

The decision to maintain the deal was announced Tuesday by Kang just hours after North Korea agreed to send athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month. The meeting between representatives of North and South Korea in the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two countries was the first formal round of talks in more than two years, and helped ease tensions that had been escalating over the North’s nuclear and missile tests.