TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese panel tasked with reviewing a landmark apology issued over two decades ago to women, many Korean, who worked in Japan’s wartime military brothels, said South Korea had helped with the sensitive wording of the original document.
South Korea expressed deep regret over Tokyo pushing for the review, saying the results gloss over the facts, and disputed the finding that Seoul was directly involved in the formulation of the formal apology in 1993.
The topic of “comfort women” - as they are euphemistically known in Japan - has long been a thorn in Japan’s ties with South Korea, which says Japan has not sufficiently atoned for the women’s suffering.
The 1993 “Kono Statement”, named after then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in whose name it was issued, acknowledged Japanese authorities’ involvement in coercing the women to work in the brothels.
The apology remains a sensitive subject, complicating relations that have become increasingly frosty in recent years due to a territorial row over disputed islets and the legacy of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean peninsula.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has questioned the Kono Statement in the past and in what many saw as a nod to his conservative base, the government asked five experts to review it. But mindful of potential diplomatic fallout, Abe has also said he would not revise it.
A summary of the review by Japan’s foreign ministry said that there had been “in-depth coordination on the language of the Kono Statement between Japan and the ROK”.
In a responding statement, South Korea’s foreign ministry said: “Our government had maintained the stance that finding out the truth is not a subject for negotiation between the two countries and only presented opinions informally upon repeated requests from Japan.”
Japan says the matter of compensation for the women forced to work in the brothels was settled under a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic ties. In 1995, Japan set up a fund to make payments to the women from private contributions, but South Korea says that was not official and so not enough.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihida Suga, commenting on the review, repeated that Japan would not revise the statement on the comfort women. “It is still very painful to think of the sufferings that the women endured and there is no change in the government’s stance on that,” Suga told a news conference.
Many Japanese conservatives say there is no proof of authorities’ involvement - a stance adopted by Abe’s first 2006-2007 administration - and that other countries also sexually exploited women during wartime.
China reiterated its view that Japan should face up to its past history of invasion in Asia.
“There is irrefutable evidence for these crimes,” Chinese Foreign Ministery spokewoman Hua Chunying told a news briefing.
“Any move which tries to overturn the crimes of history will be unpopular and cannot succeed.”
The review of the Kono Statement comes at a sensitive time for Abe’s security agenda, as he pushes to end a ban on sending Japan’s military to aid a friendly country under attack - a major shift in defence policy likely to upset Seoul and Beijing.
It also coincides with raised tensions over a group of contested islands, called the Takeshima in Japanese and Dokdo in Korean. The islets are controlled by South Korea, but claimed by Japan as well.
South Korea began a shooting drill in disputed waters off the islands on Friday, prompting a Japanese protest.
Additional reporting by Ben Blancard in BEIJING, Ju-min Park in SEOUL; Writing by Linda Sieg in TOKYO; Editing by Jeremy Laurence