S Korea, Japan to hold crucial talks on 'comfort women'

S Korea, Japan to hold crucial talks on 'comfort women'

SEOUL - The foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan will hold talks on Monday on the thorny issue of wartime sex slaves that has long strained ties, with hints of a possible compromise emerging.

Seoul and Tokyo were tussling over the wording of an agreement to settle the issue of "comfort women", South Korean media reported, hours before South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se was due to meet his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida.

Up to 200,000 women are estimated to have been sexually enslaved by Japan during World War II, many of them Korean, and they were euphemistically called "comfort women".

Seoul is demanding a formal apology and compensation for the 46 surviving Korean women.

"Both sides have found some common ground as to the thorniest issue - the Japanese government's legal responsibility for mobilising comfort women during the war", a South Korean government source was quoted as saying by the Joongang Ilbo daiy.

A solution under discussion would entail a Japanese government fund to compensate the victims and the payments would be called an "atonement recompense", the paper said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would also write a letter of apology to the victims, which would be delivered in person to them by the Japanese ambassador in Seoul, according to the daily.

Japan's Kishida was also upbeat as he prepared to fly out of Tokyo's Haneda airport Monday, calling the talks "very important".

He told reporters: "I want to do my best. The comfort women issue is a very difficult issue, but I want to make a last-minute adjustment to consider what I can do."

Yun on Sunday dismissed Japan's claim that the issue of comfort women was settled in a 1965 agreement on normalising relations between the two countries.

Japan has long maintained that the dispute was settled in the 1965 agreement which saw Tokyo make a total payment of US$800 million (S$1,125) in grants or loans to its former colony.

But Seoul says the treaty does not cover compensation for victims of wartime crimes against humanity such as the mobilisation of comfort women and that the agreement does not absolve the Japanese government of its legal responsibility.

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye has said settlement of the issue remains the "greatest stumbling block" to friendlier ties.

When she met Abe in Seoul last month for a rare summit, they agreed to speed up talks on the issue. The foreign ministers' meeting on Monday is part of these efforts.

Japan issued a landmark 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.

But in a fresh irritant ahead of the foreign ministers' talks, Japanese news reports said Seoul was reviewing the relocation of a statue symbolising comfort women at the request of Tokyo.

The statue currently stands in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Cho June-Hyuck on Saturday dismissed the reports as "preposterous".

The foreign ministry said on its Facebook page that the statue in question was set up by civilians and the government had no say over its location.

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 1910-45 colonial rule.

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