A South Korean woman who was forced into sexual enslavement for the imperial Japanese army during World War II died Sunday. The death of the 91-year-old woman is yet another reminder that time is running out for the aging victims to receive a formal apology and due compensation from Tokyo. Her death reduced the number of surviving victims of wartime sexual slavery to 54. Initially, 237 women were on the list of South Korean government-registered former sex slaves, euphemistically called “comfort women.”
Last week, North Korea urged South Korea to repatriate two fishermen who expressed their wish to remain here after being rescued from a boat that drifted into Southern waters. Denouncing the South for what it called an “unpardonable grave encroachment” upon the human rights of its citizens, Pyongyang demanded their unconditional and immediate repatriation.
These events are seemingly unrelated but may be combined to shed light on what Tokyo and Pyongyang should do to settle humanitarian issues involving South Koreans along with implementing their recent breakthrough agreement. During talks in Stockholm last month, diplomats from Japan and North Korea agreed that an investigation into the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean spies decades ago would be reopened in return for Tokyo easing some of the unilateral sanctions it has imposed on Pyongyang.
The chief North Korean negotiator later reaffirmed Pyongyang’s determination to deliver on its part of the accord, suggesting the communist regime’s desire to improve and eventually normalize ties with Tokyo. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida suggested in a parliamentary session last week that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might visit North Korea to facilitate the implementation of the agreement. He was quoted by a Japanese news agency as noting swift action would be needed as family members of the kidnapped victims were becoming elderly.
It is only natural that recent moves by North Korea and Japan have prompted the South Korean government and public to call on the two sides to be equally sincere toward resolving humanitarian issues with the South.
Before cutting the deal with Tokyo, Pyongyang should have paid heed to Seoul’s repeated calls to address the issues of South Korean abductees and prisoners of war held in the North for decades. The South estimates that about 500 POWs from the 1950-53 Korean War and 516 civilian abductees are still alive in the North. Pyongyang claims that all South Korean civilians voluntarily defected, denying holding any prisoners of war. The North accused the South of ignoring its call to meet the two fishermen to confirm their intention to remain here. But it should be remembered that hundreds of South Korean abductees have been given no opportunity to express their own free will.
Pyongyang should also agree to hold reunions of families separated during the war more frequently and on a regular basis to allow elderly people to see their long-lost relatives before they die.
South Korea and Japan have held two rounds of talks on the comfort women issue following their agreement in April to hold the discussions regularly. Tokyo has claimed it was formally cleared of all responsibility for its 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula through a 1965 treaty that normalized ties with Seoul. Still, Japan is required to fulfill its moral obligations and respond to conscientious voices in the international community by settling the wartime sexual slavery issue in a way acceptable to the surviving victims. As with the increasingly elderly family members of Japanese abductees, time is running out ― but more rapidly ― for former comfort women, mostly in their 80s and 90s, to see Tokyo take sincere steps to atone for their suffering before they all pass away.
Any progress in implementing the recent deal between Japan and North Korea should refocus on their humanitarian obligations regarding South Korean comfort women and abductees.