Japan official heads to Seoul for talks on 'comfort women'
South Korea and Japan held rare high-level talks yesterday on the sensitive issue of wartime sex slavery, which has contributed to a freeze in diplomatic ties.
Kyodo cited an unnamed government official as saying that Japan would indicate it was mulling an official apology and money for the so-called comfort women forced to work in military brothels.
The meeting was between Junichi Ihara, head of the Japanese foreign ministry's Asia and Oceania affairs bureau, and Lee Sang-Deok, South Korea's director-general for Northeast Asian Affairs. Seoul said the talks were the first time high-level officials had met to discuss the comfort woman issue in isolation.
Relations between Tokyo and Seoul are at their lowest ebb in years, mired in disputes linked to Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean peninsula.
As US President Barack Obama heads to both Japan and South Korea next week, there is renewed impetus for the two key US allies to heal their fractured relationship, despite domestic pressures on both sides not to bend.
The comfort women issue has deeply divided the neighbours, frustrating Washington at a time of growing regional instability, with China's military build-up snowballing and North Korea warning that it might carry out another nuclear test.
Japan has maintained that all issues relating to the colonial period were settled under a 1965 bilateral treaty that normalised diplomatic ties with South Korea.
According to the government official cited by Kyodo, the offer of another apology and further compensation would be formalised only after confirming the issue "has been completely settled", so that South Korea never brings it up again.
Japan previously offered money to former sex slaves through the Asian Women's Fund, a private body set up at Tokyo's initiative in 1995 and run until 2007. Some survivors refused the cash because it did not come directly from the government.
Japanese politicians have expressed exasperation at Seoul's repeated requests for contrition.
Repeated wavering since the apology among politicians has contributed to a feeling in South Korea that Japan is in denial and not sufficiently remorseful.
Historians say up to 200,000 women, mostly from Korea but also from China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan, were forced to work in Japanese army brothels.
There are 55 surviving former comfort women in South Korea.