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[Editorial] Time is running out

Speedy resolution needed to get ex-military sex slaves justice

Forty-seven remaining survivors, most of them around 90 years old. This is the stark reality that Korea and Japanese officials should bear in mind as the two sides discuss the issue of Japanese military sex slaves during World War II.

Wednesday’s 10th working-level meeting between Korean and Japanese Foreign Ministry officials on the issue ended without making much headway and without fixing a date for the next meeting. That no progress was made hardly comes as a surprise — nine meetings had led nowhere and it would have been naive to think that yet another meeting could yield much. Yet, since it was the first time the two sides were meeting on the issue since the summit between President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, there was reason to think that progress could be made.

After refusing to meet with Abe unless the issue of former military sex slaves was resolved, Park was nudged into meeting Abe at the behest of Washington. When the two leaders did finally meet earlier this month, they pledged to accelerate consultations to resolve the dispute, which, Park said, was the “biggest stumbling block” to normalized ties. 

It has been reported that while Park demanded a resolution by the year's end, Abe avoided setting a deadline. And indeed, Abe’s subsequent remarks seem to show that Japan is not in a hurry. Upon returning to Tokyo, he said in an interview that it is very difficult to come up with a proposal that is totally satisfactory to both countries, adding, “but we may be able to find common ground in the course of discussing the issue.” He reiterated that position the following day in a meeting with Sadakazu Tanigaki, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party general secretary. While Korea wants to see an agreement reached before the end of the year, Abe said, it would be difficult due to the difference in the basic positions of the two countries.

The difference hinges on the interpretation of the 1965 treaty that normalized relations between Korea and Japan, which colonized Korea from 1910 to 1945. Tokyo insists that the 1965 treaty settled all reparations. Seoul, on the other hand, maintains that the treaty did not cover the matter of military sex slaves and demands a formal apology and compensation from the Japanese government for the victims.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Korean negotiator Lee Sang-deok said that the two sides are moving toward the goal of reaching a deal, albeit very slowly. His Japanese counterpart Kimihiro Ishikane said that they made efforts to find common ground amid differing positions. In other words, no tangible progress.

One common ground that the two sides could agree on is the welfare of the ageing former military sex slaves. Many of the survivors are infirm due to old age and may not be around long enough to see the issue resolved if the talks continue at the current pace. Neither side has even presented a proposal that could be negotiated; each government is demanding that the other present its proposal.

On Friday, Park called on Abe to make good on the agreement toward a speedy settlement of the issue, urging him to make a decision. Indeed, a speedy resolution of the military sex slaves issue is crucial if the women, victims of horrific human rights abuses, are to get justice in their lifetime.
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