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[Editorial] Time running out

Latest Seoul-Tokyo talks fail at a breakthrough

The sixth round of talks between Korea and Japan on the issue of Japanese military sex slavery during World War II on Monday appears to have ended on a positive note, fanning hopes that the issue may be resolved this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of normalization of ties between the two countries.

Monday’s talks lasted more than three hours, an improvement over the previous meeting in November when the two sides merely confirmed their differences.

In her New Year’s press conference on Jan. 12, President Park Geun-hye urged Japan to look squarely in the face of history and warned that the issue could be a “big burden” on Japan unless it was quickly resolved. Park has so far shunned a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, reiterating that the military sex slavery issue must first be resolved.

Three days later, Abe told a delegation of visiting Korean parliamentarians that he regretted that the “comfort women” issue had turned into a political and diplomatic issue. That statement was taken here as a sign that the right-wing Japanese government’s position on the matter remained unchanged ― that all compensations were settled as part of the 1965 normalization treaty.

The revelation on the same day of the Japanese government’s attempts to change a U.S. textbook account of Japanese military sex slavery reinforced the perception that Japan is bent on revising history to suit its tastes. Historians agree that around 200,000 women, mainly from Korea but also from other Asian countries, were forced into a system of sex slavery operated by the Japanese military. Japanese right-wingers, however, claim that the women were prostitutes and have been seeking to amend what they claim are false depictions of the Japanese military’s activities during World War II.

If the two sides wish to mend relations before June 22, the 50th anniversary of the normalization of ties, they must produce results soon. Already, the months ahead are fraught with potential obstacles to improving bilateral ties. Japan marks Takeshima Day next month, claiming its sovereignty over Korea’s Dokdo Islets, and the Japanese government’s history textbook approvals are due in March.

The issue of Japanese military sex slavery is a humanitarian issue, an issue of wartime violence against women. As such, political considerations should not play a part in resolving the issue. Most of the women have died and the few who remain are old and frail. Both Korea and Japan owe it to the women to resolve the issue soon, before it is too late ― when there is no one left to receive the formal apology and proper compensation. Japan should not allow its future to be affected by its reluctance to look at history head-on.