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Former sex slave’s death piles pressure on Seoul

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Published : 2014-06-09 21:07
Updated : 2014-06-09 21:07

The death of another victim of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery is expected to heap pressure on Korea as negotiations over an apology and compensation by Japan have made little headway and public sentiment is growing bitter.

A throng of ranking officials, politicians and ordinary citizens on Monday flowed in and out of a funeral home in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, for the wake of Bae Chun-hee, who died Sunday at age 91.

Born in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, Bae at age 19 was coaxed into applying to the prostitution corps in China run by the Japanese army. She was set free upon Korea’s 1945 liberation but then flew to Japan shortly after on fears of public criticism and spent decades there as an amateur singer. 
A portrait of Bae Chun-hee, a victim of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery who died Sunday at age 91, is seen at her memorial service in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province. (Yonhap)

She returned home in the early 1980s and joined the House of Sharing, a shelter for former “comfort women” in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province.

With her death, 54 victims of sexual slavery survive, with their average age at 88. That is a sharp decline from the 237 initially registered on the government’s list in 1992.

“I’ve met her many times and knew about her singing career, so one time my colleagues and I sang her favorite song, ‘Chilgapsan’ (a mountain in Cheongyang, South Chungcheong Province), to her,” a senior official at the Foreign Ministry told The Korea Herald. “I can’t say we don’t feel pressure (to make headway on Japan’s atonement).”

Seoul and Tokyo have been holding monthly director-general-level talks since April to resolve the long-festering issue.

But the consultations appear to be moving at a snail’s pace due to stark differences in their positions. Korea calls for a formal, sincere apology and compensation for the aging victims, whereas Japan claims the issue was settled in a 1965 agreement that normalized the bilateral relations.

While acknowledging that the topic would require time, patience and compromises, activists and observers worry that time may run out for the survivors and bereaved families well before the sides reach a compromise.

Adding pressure are growing public calls for the government to come up with necessary steps to facilitate a deal. The ministry said it has been gathering views from experts and activists to better reflect public opinions during the talks.

“The voices to testify against this harrowing part of history are weakening. What can we do if all of them have passed away? When would they be able to receive an apology?” a user surnamed Park wrote on Twitter.

Another user surnamed Chung said: “Needless to say, Japan’s despicable attitude is the problem, but that of our government is slipshod as well.”

“For us, it’s vital to convey the popular sentiment here to Japan,” another official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“The negotiation is a tough one and requires a long-term approach. Our position remains unwavering that it should result in measures that are acceptable to the victims.”

By Shin Hyon-hee  (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)

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