SEOUL — There’s relief among South Korean and Japanese diplomats after the two countries announced an “irreversible” settlement of a decades-long standoff over Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japan’s World War II military. But activists and many of the elderly victims were furious on Tuesday.
Both sides compromised in Monday’s surprise deal, so neither got everything it wanted. Nationalists in Japan are angry over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s apology. Some South Koreans say President Park Geun-hye settled for far too little money—about $8 million—and that Japan still hasn’t taken legal responsibility for atrocities during its colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
But the apparent finality of the deal—both sides called the matter “resolved finally and irreversibly,” if faithfully implemented—has been largely accepted so far, after decades in which the issue ruined ties between the two powerful Northeast Asian democracies.
Historians say tens of thousands of women from around Asia, many of them Korean, were sent to front-line military brothels to provide sex to Japanese soldiers. Only 46 known former Korean sex slaves, most in their late 80s and 90s, are still alive, and with time running out and with frustration growing, the deal is seen by many here as the best to be had from a hawkish Abe government.
“Insisting that Japan take legal responsibility is the same thing as saying we don’t want to resolve the issue of comfort women,” said Jin Chang Soo, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank, who called the deal an important step forward.
There’s also a recognition that Washington, which is Seoul’s military protector and ally, has pushed more forcefully for a detente between the neighbors, which together play host to 80,000 US troops and are key bulwarks as China rises and North Korea threatens.
The reaction Tuesday among people in both countries was low key: a sparsely attended anti-Japan rally in Seoul, a few dozen right wingers in Tokyo, but little media or public outcry, and nothing like the thousands who choked Seoul’s streets in outrage in 2008 after a beef deal with the US raised fears of mad cow disease.
The story’s popularity on South Korean news sites was surpassed Tuesday by other domestic stories, including a business tycoon’s revelation of a love child and his plans to divorce the daughter of a former president.
In the sex slave deal, Abe expressed “his most sincere apologies and remorse” to the women. Japan also agreed to contribute 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) for a foundation to help support the victims. The money will come from the national budget, not private sources, a distinction Tokyo has resisted in the past.
Japan, however, doesn’t consider the 1 billion yen as compensation, saying such issues were settled in a 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic ties and was accompanied by more than $800 million in economic aid and loans from Tokyo to Seoul.
Seoul, meanwhile, said it will refrain from criticizing Japan over the issue and will try to resolve Japan’s grievance over a statue of a girl representing victims of sexual slavery that sits in front of the Japanese Embassy in downtown Seoul.
At a care home in Seoul where some former wartime sex slaves live, senior Foreign Ministry official Lim Sung-nam was interrupted and chastised by an elderly victim as he apologized for failing to tell the women about Seoul’s consultations with Tokyo in advance.
“Japan’s Abe should say that what his country did was illegal and beg for forgiveness in front of reporters,” said another victim, Kim Bok-dong, 88.
One of the women said Monday that she would accept the deal reluctantly because she knew the South Korean government made efforts to settle the issue.
In Tokyo, about 180 members of a rightist group, Ganbare Nippon, chanted, “Your act of selling out the country is unforgivable,” and “Retract it!” One wore a placard saying, “The military use of comfort women is a fiction by Korea.”
A handful of people gathered in Seoul near the statue of the girl representing sex slaves.
“We want to see the prime minister kneel down before this girl’s statue and apologize like West German Chancellor Willy Brandt did at the memorial” for Nazi victims in Poland, Kim Won Wung, a former lawmaker, said at the small rally.