SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – After decades of controversy, Japan apologized Monday for forcing Korean women into sexual slavery during World War II and pledged 1 billion yen – $8.3 million – for survivors.
The deal came after 70 years of contention between the two Asian powers, which rose from the ashes of war to become the world’s third- and eleventh-largest economies.
Historians estimate that 200,000 women from Korea and other Japanese-occupied Southeast Asian nations were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the war. Today, only 46 known Korean “comfort women,” now in their 80s and 90s, are still alive, according to The Associated Press.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the deal “finally and irreversibly” resolves the issue, and will start a new chapter of improved relations between the two Pacific nations.
“I hope this will be an opportunity for the two countries – Japan and South Korea – to join forces to clear a path to a new era,” Abe said during a Monday news conference.
Despite the deal, some critics say Japan still refuses to accept responsibility for its role in forcing the women into sexual slavery during the war.
Japan has long argued that all issues relating to Korean comfort women were settled in a 1965 treaty between the two nations, which included $800 million in compensation for South Korea.
In a closed-door briefing with Japanese reporters, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Tokyo does not consider the $8.3 million to be compensation, but “a project to relieve emotional scars and provide healing for the victims,” according to The Associated Press.
Abe discussed the deal in a Monday phone call with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who asked Japan to move quickly to carry out the agreement.
“The most important thing is for Japan to diligently and promptly implement what has been agreed to restore comfort women victims’ honor and dignity and heal their wounded hearts,” Park told the Yonhap News Agency after meeting with Japan’s foreign minister.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry applauded the agreement and urged the international community to support it.
“We believe this agreement will promote healing and help to improve relations between two of the United States’ most important allies,” Kerry said. “We applaud the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea for having the courage and vision to reach this agreement.”
In 1993, Japan’s former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono issued a formal apology for the suffering of former comfort women. In 1995, a fund from private donations was established to assist victims.
In July this year, two former Korean comfort women – Hee Nam You and Kyung Soon Kim – filed a class action against 19 defendants, including the nation of Japan and its prime minister, for their roles in the wartime sexual slavery.
U.S. District Judge William Alsup dismissed eight defendants from the lawsuit, finding the claims were time-barred and involved a “non-justiciable political question” that would require the court to interpret the 1965 treaty between two foreign nations.
Hume Joseph Jung, class attorney for the women, called the new deal “a good gesture” and “an improvement” but said Japan has still failed to accept legal responsibility for its role in the conspiracy.
“The Korean government has been pushing the Japanese government to accept responsibility legally and morally and ethically, and they have denied it until now,” Jung said. “They did something that is better than before, but they are still not accepting legal responsibility.”
Jung said his clients are still pursuing their lawsuit in the Northern District of California. He plans to consult with co-counsel in South Korea before deciding how the latest development might affect the pending litigation.
A hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion to file a second amended complaint against the dismissed defendants is scheduled for Jan. 14, 2016.
The two named plaintiffs – You and Kim – say they were abducted from their hometowns in Korea and shipped to “comfort stations” in Japanese-controlled territories, where they were forced to have sex “five to 30 times a day” with Japanese soldiers, leaving them with permanent physical and emotional scars.
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