Braving social bias and ostracism, Kim Hak-soon, a South Korean comfort woman, took to the podium in 1991 to testify about her wartime forced prostitution experiences for the first time in public.
Another 237 Korean women, forced into sexual slavery for Japanese troops during World War II, followed suit, demanding a sincere apology and legal compensation from the Japanese government.
Later that year, Kim and three other victims filed a lawsuit against Japanese authorities. But Japan’s highest court ruled against them in 2004.
Twenty-four years on from that step up to the podium, a long-standing dispute between South Korea and Japan over the issue has continued to distress the now 46 Korean survivors, who are mostly in their 80s and 90s. Earlier this month, Choi Gab-soon died at age 96. Nine victims have died this year alone.
Up to 200,000 “comfort women” were sexually enslaved by the Japanese Army before and during World War II.
The surviving victims have maintained pressure on Japan by holding a demonstration every Wednesday outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
South Korea has demanded an official apology and legal compensation from the Japanese government for the victims, while Japan has claimed it fulfilled its legal responsibilities under the treaty for normalization in 1965. Korea has claimed that the wartime human rights issue should be dealt with separately.
The diplomatic standoff deteriorated in 2014 when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for the landmark 1993 Kono Statement to be revised, backtracking on its apology to the victims. The Kono Statement acknowledged that the comfort women had been coerced to serve as sex slaves, with the Japanese military’s systematic involvement in establishing and managing the frontline brothels.
In 1995, Tomiichi Murayama, then prime minister, issued a “heartfelt apology” for Japan’s “aggression” and “colonial rule” on the Asian mainland in a statement.
That year, Japan also set up the privately run Asia Women’s Fund, which drew on donations, refusing to directly compensate the women.
The move drew ire from Korean victims’ rights groups, including the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, who viewed it as a gimmick by Japan to dodge its responsibility to directly apologize to the victims and compensate them. The operation of the fund was temporarily suspended in 1999 and disbanded in 2007 amid opposition from the victims.
Of the victims, 12, including Lee Ock-seon, aged 86, filed for compensation from the Japanese government in August 2013 through the Seoul Central District Court. The case is currently pending at a mediation procedure.
While the trial over the suit can begin regardless of the mediation process -- which aims to seek settlement before beginning the official trial -- the victims had been waiting for a reaction from the Japanese side that has repeatedly sent back relevant court documents citing the Korean court does not have jurisdiction over the Japanese government. Since then, two of the 12 have died.
The international community has also pressured Japan. In 1996, the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission passed a resolution to accept the investigative reports covering comfort women forced into sexual servitude during the war, pressuring Japan to take legal responsibility for the atrocities.
The U.S. House of Representatives in 2007 passed a resolution demanding Japan admit to its wrongdoing and issue an apology to the victims.
In light of worsening bilateral ties, South Korea and Japan first held working-level talks in 2014 to settle the issue that has long posed hurdles in their relations.
A total of 12 talks were held in the lead-up to the deal struck Monday.
Japan expressed an “apology, remorse from the heart” to the victims of sexual enslavement and said it felt “responsibility” in the talks held in Seoul earlier in the day.
But former comfort women showed mixed reactions after the deal was made public, as Tokyo did not make it clear whether it would be legal or ethical responsibility.
Lee Yong-soo, an 88-year-old former sex slave, said in a press conference that she would ignore the results of the agreement. “The government doesn’t seem to care about the victims. What we cried for was an official apology from Japan and its legal responsibility.”
Another 88-year-old former sex slave Yoo Hee-nam said in the House of Sharing, a shelter for the victims in Gwangju, Gyeonggi Province, that she would follow the government‘s decision.
“We are not satisfied. Money is not an issue when we look back on our lives in the past,” Yoo said. “But, given the government’s efforts to resolve the issue within this year, I would follow what has been decided by the government.”
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)