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S.Korea demands Japanese apology to ageing "comfort women"

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 6 Oct 2011 10:11 GMT
Author: Reuters
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By Jeremy Laurence

SEOUL, Oct 6 (Reuters) - South Korea urged Tokyo on Thursday to offer an official apology and compensation to its ageing so-called "comfort women" -- women forced into sexual slavery in brothels run by the Japanese army in World War Two.

South Koreaean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan told his Japanese counterpart, Koichiro Gemba, during a visit to Seoul that given the average age of victims is now 86, Tokyo should find heart to resolve the issue on a humanitarian level.

Japan, which ruled the Korean peninsula as a colony from 1910-1945, has refused to be drawn on the issue which has been a constant thorn in the side of relations between the neighbours. Tokyo says it was fully resolved by a 1965 treaty.

"We've made our position clear consistently over the compensation issue, I'm not going to repeat it again," Gemba told a news conference, adding talks would continue.

The issue resurfaced in South Korea in August when the Constitutional Court ruled it unconstitutional for the Seoul government to make no specific effort to settle the matter with Tokyo. Last month, Seoul proposed that the issue be renegotiated.

Historians estimate that as many as 200,000 so-called "comfort women", mostly Koreans, were forced into sexual slavery in the Imperial Japanese Army's brothels before and during World War Two.

"Does the Japanese government think that everything would be all right if we were all dead?," asked 84-year-old Kil Won-ock, during an interview with Reuters at a home for the women in Seoul.

"I haven't been able to fall asleep comfortably for over seven decades. I was forced into prostitution when I was 13 years old. No matter how much they pay for us, the scars won't be erased.

"The Japanese government must show a sincere attitude and say the word, 'sorry', officially, that's what we really want."

HALMONI

Every Wednesday for nearly two decades, the women, euphemistically called the halmoni which means grandmother in Korean, have gathered outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, calling for compensation.

Their numbers have dwindled since their first protest on Jan. 8, 1992, and this week only seven of the ageing halmoni joined the 990th weekly rally. Of the 234 who registered at the time of the first rally, 67 are now alive.

"The Japanese government should listen to the grannies, admitting what they did and making an apology. The problem should be solved while they are alive," said Kim Kum-lae, Minister of Gender Equality and Family Affairs, during a visit to a shelter for the elderly women.

Japan acknowledged in 1993 that the state played a role in forcing Korean and Chinese women into military brothels and set up a fund to provide compensation to survivors in 1995. However, Japan has refused to pay direct compensation to survivors.

"The women should regain their impaired reputation and recover their human rights while they are alive, then the Japanese government would be possibly forgiven," said Yoon Mi-hyang, head of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.

Japan has in the past issued apologies to the women, but critics say its apologies have been undercut by comments from some leading government figures who have played down the issue.

The issue could come again later this month during a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to Seoul. (Additional reporting by Seongbin Kang; Editing by Sugita Katyal)

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