Sunday, December 18, 2011

Lee presses Japan on ‘comfort women’

President Lee Myung-bak called on Japan to promptly act on the long-ignored issue of “comfort women,” its wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women, Sunday, warning that it could determine the future of bilateral ties.

He made the remarks in a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in Kyoto, Japan, amid growing tensions over the thorny issue.

Tension peaked last Wednesday as former comfort women staged their 1,000th weekly protest near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

Noda, however, categorically rejected Lee’s call. He rather demanded Seoul remove the “Peace Monument,” a life-size statue, placed in front of the Japanese Embassy last week to commemorate the endeavors of the former sex slaves seeking truth and compensation over Tokyo’s atrocities during World War II.

"In order for the two countries to become true partners for peace and stability in the region, Japan should have the genuine courage to resolve as a priority the military comfort women issue, which remains a stumbling block between the two nations," Lee said.

According to presidential spokesman Park Jeong-ha, Lee repeatedly addressed the comfort women issue over the one-hour talks with Noda putting aside most of the economic issues, including a possible free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries.

Noda said that Japan's position remains unchanged that its responsibility to compensate the comfort women was completely resolved in 1965 when Seoul and Tokyo signed the Korea-Japan Basic Treaty to normalize diplomatic relations.

He only said Japan will make more efforts from a humanitarian perspective.

“I’m sure you understand our government’s legal stance over the issue,” the Japanese leader told Lee. “We will continue to exercise wisdom from a humanitarian perspective."

Noda also expressed regrets over the installation of the Peace Monument.

“To my understanding, our working level officials have sought the removal of the statue,” he said. “I also request President Lee to uninstall it.”

Lee rejected the demand, saying that the monument would not have been set up “had Japan shown a little bit of interest” in resolving the problem.

He warned that Japan would see "second and third" statues being installed unless Tokyo takes measures to tackle the issue in a sincere manner.

A senior presidential aide said that Lee raised the issue in a strong manner because he sees it as a litmus test in deciding whether Korea can expand cooperation with Japan including an FTA and bilateral security cooperation.

He noted that the comfort women issue is becoming increasingly urgent as most victims are elderly and may die before they receive compensation or an apology from Japan.

A former Korean sex slave died last week, leaving only 63 survivors.

Tokyo has ignored Seoul's demand for official talks on compensating the aging Korean women.

The government began making demands after the Constitutional Court ruled in August that it was unconstitutional for it to make no specific efforts to settle the matter with Tokyo.

Upon arrival in Japan, Saturday, Lee issued a similar warning that the matter would remain a thorn “forever” unless it's resolved now, given the advanced ages of most of the victims.

“Unless we resolve this issue, Japan will have the burden of being unable to settle the outstanding issue between the two countries forever,” he said during a meeting with Korean residents in Osaka. “Now there are not many left. This year alone, 16 of them passed away. In the not-so-distant future, all of them will die,” he said.

Lee pointed out that resolving the issue while they are alive would help the two countries move forward.

Some critics, however, say Lee’s touching on the comfort women issue for the first time since he took office in 2008 is a political move.

They say he is seeking to boost his popularity which has plunged further after media began speculating on his administration’s involvement in an attack that paralyzed the website of the country’s election watchdog.

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