Deal will include support services using Japanese government funds
By Kwanwoo Jun in Seoul and
Alexander Martin in Tokyo
Updated Dec. 28, 2015 1:45 p.m. ET
South Korea and Japan reached an agreement that aims to resolve a decades-old dispute over Korean women who were used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II, a festering wound that has inflamed tensions between the U.S.’s two most important allies in Asia.
Under the accord, Japan will supply ¥1 billion ($8.3 million) in government funds to support the so-called comfort women. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also apologized for the women’s treatment, something he had been reluctant to do previously.
The wartime issue has long strained ties between the two neighbors and caused concern in Washington. “We must not let this problem drag on into the next generation,” Mr. Abe said in Tokyo after the agreement was announced in Seoul.
The U.S., which sees better relations between the two countries as key to checking China in the region, welcomed the deal. “We applaud the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea for having the courage and vision to reach this agreement, and we call on the international community to support it,” said Secretary of State John Kerry.
The agreement involved concessions by both sides. Japan has previously maintained that all issues of compensation to South Koreans for the war were resolved when it restored diplomatic relations with Seoul in 1965. In the current deal it edged away from that position by agreeing to fund a South Korean foundation to aid the women forced into servitude, while also insisting the money didn’t represent direct compensation for wrongdoing.
By apologizing, Mr. Abe also went further than his government has previously. The prime minister made a direct apology, expressed both in a statement by his foreign minister and in a telephone call with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
“Prime Minister Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women,” the statement said.
The statement also acknowledged Japanese government involvement in the comfort women program, a point Mr. Abe and conservatives in his ruling party have frequently questioned.
Still, some in Korea called Mr. Abe’s statement inadequate. The Korean Council for Women Forced Into Sexual Slavery, which represents some former sex slaves, said the agreement didn’t make clear enough that the recruitment of the women “was a crime done by the Japanese government and military systematically.” It said Japan should directly compensate the women instead of creating a fund to do so.
The council also objected to Seoul’s promise that it would consider removing a statue of a girl in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul that commemorates the women’s suffering. Tokyo has called the statue an affront.
The group called the deal “humiliating” and said Seoul “gave a bushel and only got a peck [of returns in the agreement].” Some comfort women told Korean media they would accept the compromise.