EDITORIAL: Let 2015 be the year 'comfort women' issue is resolved
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida will visit South Korea on Dec. 28 to hold talks with his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, in a diplomatic effort to reach an agreement on the wartime “comfort women” issue that has been a festering sore in relations between Japan and its neighbor.
How to provide relief to women who were forced to provide sex to wartime Japanese soldiers is a human rights issue the governments of both countries need to tackle together, regardless of differences in their political positions on this sticky issue.
Twenty-four years have passed since a former comfort woman in South Korea came forward to talk about her experience for the first time.
This year alone, many former comfort women died with bitter resentment in their hearts. The number of former comfort women recognized by the South Korean government who are still alive is now less than 50, and their average age is nearly 90.
Time is growing short for both governments to resolve this long-running issue. This is clearly the time for Tokyo and Seoul to take action to remove this painful thorn in their relationship.
Any agreement on the issue reached between the two governments will stir up discontent and anger among people in both countries. There are narrow-minded opinions on both sides that use this issue to stir nationalistic impulses.
The political leaders of Japan and South Korea have a duty to overcome such friction and speak about the importance of building healthy relations between their countries through efforts based on a broad, long-term perspective. They must not let this crucial opportunity slip through their fingers.
Japan and South Korea established a formal diplomatic relationship in 1965, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the normal ties between the two nations.
Half a century ago, the number of Japanese and South Koreans who visited the other country was about 10,000 annually. The figure has since grown to more than 5 million due to steady expansion of exchanges between the two nations.
Nowadays, Japan and South Korea are bound together by inseparable and cooperative economic and cultural ties.
However, the comfort women issue has been a major obstacle to further development of the bilateral relations.
Tokyo and Seoul have been at odds over the question of whether a 1965 bilateral agreement on war reparations and economic cooperation legally solved the comfort women issue, as it did on issues concerning Japanese compensation for its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945. Bilateral talks over this question have gone nowhere.
If an agreement is to be reached in the meeting between the foreign ministers, it would be a product of major mutual, not unilateral, concessions.
Such a deal would be an important symbol of the two governments’ commitment to overcome the legacies of the unfortunate past of the two countries and start building a new future for bilateral ties.
The real negotiations over the comfort women issue have been taking place behind the scenes through an unofficial diplomatic channel, rather than official director-general level talks.
The negotiations have made significant headway since the first one-on-one summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Nov. 2.
The Abe and Park administrations have been under strong diplomatic pressure from the United States, the principal ally for both countries, to take steps toward settling the issue.
In addition, the scheduled general election in South Korea next spring has provided a strong political incentive for both governments to push the negotiations forward quickly.
The Japanese and South Korean governments share the need to manage their diplomatic agendas while feeling the pulse of the public.
This is a situation that will test the political leadership of both administrations.
We strongly hope that the political leaders of the two countries will work out a historic agreement on the issue suitable for this milestone year by duly fulfilling their responsibility.