Abe held firm to attain 'comfort women' deal

Abe held firm to attain 'comfort women' deal
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) speaks to the press at his official residence on December 28, 2015, after a telephone conversation with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. Abe said that a landmark agreement between Japan and South Korea on the issue of wartime sex slaves heralds a "new era" in relations between the two countries.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played a leading role behind a deal the Japanese and South Korean governments reached Monday regarding so-called comfort women, aided by his insistence on not deviating from what he saw as the correct path and his realisation that results would not come without compromise.

On Thursday evening, Abe summoned Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to the Prime Minister's Office, where he ordered him to seek a final resolution to the comfort women issue - which the two sides have struggled to resolve for years - in talks with his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung Se.

According to sources, Abe told Kishida, "End the negotiations and come home if the words 'final and irreversible' are not in the deal."

Abe had a strong resolve to settle the comfort women issue this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of Japan and South Korea normalizing diplomatic relations.

His August statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II brought China and South Korea a little closer to Japan. Abe decided the opportunity was too good to pass up, the sources said.

He also calculated that eliminating one of his weaknesses - having unstable relations with neighbouring countries - would help his Liberal Democratic Party in next summer's House of Councillors election.

Still, Abe risked harming his position, since compromising too easily would invite criticism from his conservative support base.

His order to Kishida appears designed to ensure the image of a "strong Abe" was not damaged.

Significant action to resolve the comfort women issue began when Abe held his first official meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Nov. 2 in Seoul.

The comfort women issue was the theme of the first half of the meeting between the two leaders and a few others.

Abe explained his position that the comfort women issue had been settled under the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea.

He reportedly pressed Park to "come up with some idea that could be accepted by the women who were comfort women."

Park reportedly replied that this was "something the perpetrator [the Japanese government] needed to think of."

Nevertheless, the frank exchange of views between the two leaders encouraged progress on the issue.

Abe then ordered Shotaro Yachi, secretary general of the National Security Secretariat and an adviser on diplomacy to the prime minister, and others to begin working on the issue, in addition to talks at the director-general level between the two nations.

The prime minister reportedly wanted to avoid criticism from conservatives if it was leaked that he planned to spend state funds on the comfort women issue, so he ordered strict secrecy until the negotiations were over.

The Japanese side proposed that in return for providing funds to a new foundation that South Korea will set up to support former comfort women, the issue will be finally resolved.

The negotiators reported to Abe that South Korea had responded positively to the proposal. However, Abe also insisted the statue of a girl symbolizing a comfort woman be removed from in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

The South Korean side indicated they expected the statue to be removed, but this did not satisfy Abe.

"Even if [the South Korean government] says that, it could later claim the statue was 'set up by private citizens.' It should not permit the creation of other statues," he was quoted as saying.

It remains to be seen if South Korea will hold up its end of the bargain, but Abe was able to gain something in return for his concessions.

"We were able to reach a final and irreversible resolution in the year marking the 70th anniversary [of the end of World War II]," Abe told reporters on Monday evening after speaking with Park by telephone. "We have fulfilled our responsibilities as the current generation."

Work by Yachi, Lee

Yachi and Lee Byung Kee, South Korea's presidential chief of staff, were the ones who moved the talks forward.

The South Korean side had made it clear it also wanted to resolve the issue.

Right before a decision was handed down in the defamation trial of a former Sankei Shimbun bureau chief, the South Korean Foreign Ministry told the Japanese government that it had sent a letter to the Seoul Central District Court asking it to deal with the matter appropriately.

And before a ruling was made in a lawsuit over whether the agreement with Japan on the settlement of claims for compensation violated the South Korean Constitution, a South Korean government official told the Japanese government the suit "wouldn't be a problem" and that the court was not expected to rule the agreement unconstitutional.

Yachi and Lee "were in touch almost every day" since the beginning of December trying to find a compromise, a government source said.

On Dec. 22, Yachi visited South Korea to compile an overall framework for the deal, which was reported to Abe.

The final barrier was feelings of distrust toward South Korea.

In trying to resolve the comfort women issue, the Japanese government has released a statement by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, established the Asian Women's Fund and provided atonement money to former comfort women, among other measures.

However, Kim Dae Jung and many other past South Korean presidents promised future-orientated ties with Japan, only to have these pledges broken by the following administration.

To prevent the issue from resurfacing, the government aimed to let the international community recognise that it has been "resolved."

Japanese and US officials once considered exchanging memorandums confirming the deal at a summit among the Japanese, US and South Korean leaders, or at a meeting between the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers.

However, the United States was reluctant to agree to this idea, saying it would release a statement welcoming the deal.

Diplomatic officials from Japan and South Korea held talks right up to the last minute over the text of the announcement the foreign ministers were to make.

Regarding removing the comfort woman statue, South Korea proposed saying it would "hope for an appropriate resolution," but Japan objected to this as sounding too weak. The announcement eventually said Seoul "will strive to solve" the issue.

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