South Korean officials met wartime sex slavery victims yesterday to seek their support and understanding for the landmark deal struck with Japan for a "final and irreversible" settlement on the thorny issue, after the news drew mixed reactions.
Both sides hailed the accord as a major breakthrough, with experts calling for greater collaboration in areas including trade and security. This came as critics questioned Japan's sincerity and the perceived lack of legal responsibility on its part for forcing women into Japanese military brothels during World War II.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered his "most sincere apologies and remorse" to the women in a statement issued on Monday and in a phone call to South Korean President Park Geun Hye.
Japan will also set aside 1 billion yen (S$11.7 million) for a foundation to be set up by Seoul to handle compensation for the remaining 46 victims. Historians estimate that some 200,000 women, many of them Korean, were coerced into becoming comfort women, as they were euphemistically called.
Analysts expressed surprise at the speed at which the agreement was reached - barely two months after Ms Park and Mr Abe held their first summit meeting on Nov 2 - but warned that it is not a done deal yet.
Dr Bong Young Shik from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies said: "Now the issue has moved to a different stage. Independent and mutual efforts are needed to make the settlement final and irreversible."
For Seoul, this means convincing the surviving victims, civic groups and the public to accept the deal.
Dr Bong said people are angry and disappointed that Ms Park's administration had agreed to terms deemed unworthy.
"People are asking, have you been so antagonistic and aggressive only to get this kind of settlement?" he added, referring to Ms Park's hardline approach towards Japan, which softened only this year under pressure from the country's security ally, the United States.
If the visits by First Vice-Foreign Minister Lim Sung Nam and Second Vice-Foreign Minister Cho Tae Yul to two comfort women shelters yesterday were any sign, winning over these elderly women would be an uphill task.
Some of them lambasted the government's decision, pointing out that the deal falls short of their demands for a direct apology from Mr Abe and an acknowledgement of legal responsibility from Japan.
Mr Lim sought the women's understanding that the government was unable to seek their opinion earlier due to diplomatic considerations. He added that its priority is to restore the victims' dignity and honour while they are still alive.
Mr Cho promised that the government would do its best to implement the terms of the agreement, but was rebutted by 90-year-old Kim Kun Ja, who said they would not accept a deal that was "rashly reached" by the government without consulting the victims first.
Civic groups have also denounced the deal, with The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan calling it a case of "diplomatic collusion that dampens people's hopes".
Media reaction was mixed. Conservative daily Chosun Ilbo reported that the deal was a positive development but also left "plenty of wriggle room in terms of which entity or persons are to blame". JoongAng Ilbo, another major daily, ran an editorial with the headline, "Now let's move forward", recognising both sides' efforts to resolve the issue.
This article was first published on Dec 30, 2015.
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