TOKYO: Japan’s top diplomat said Friday that he was prepared to “work hard” to settle a bitter row with South Korea over a Japanese wartime brothel system, a day after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered him to visit the country to seek a breakthrough.
“I’m ready to be improvisational and work hard over the Japan-South Korea relationship and the comfort women issue,” Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters, using a euphemism for women systematically forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II.
“Concerning my visit to South Korea we are coordinating at this point,” Kishida said, referring to ongoing arrangements between the two sides.
The comments came a day after local media reported that Abe ordered Kishida to visit Seoul by the end of this year, as the hawkish leader aims for a resolution of the lingering issue that has hammered bilateral ties between the two East Asian US allies.
“I decline to say anything on this (the comfort women issue) as it involves (negotiating) counterparts and is in the process of negotiations,” Kishida said, asked if he expects a settlement of the issue.
But his possible visit is “part of efforts towards an early settlement of (bilateral issues) that our leaders agreed” in the summit last month between Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, he said.
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.”
But it has long maintained that the dispute was settled in a 1965 normalization agreement with South Korea, which saw Tokyo make a total payment of $800 million in grants or loans to its former colony.
Seoul is demanding a fresh formal apology and compensation for the Korean women forced to serve as sex slaves in Japanese military army brothels during World War II.
The fate of the wartime comfort women is a hugely emotional issue in South Korea and a source of much of the distrust that has marred relations between Seoul and Tokyo for decades.
However, Abe and Park have recently demonstrated their willingness to resolve the row after their first bilateral summit meeting last month and diplomats from the two countries have since met to seek a solution.
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.
The acquittal last week in South Korea of a Japanese journalist who had been prosecuted for allegedly defaming Park in a column is also seen as having cleared another obstacle that had stood in the way of improved relations.