South Korea is committed to advancing relations with Japan but will step up efforts to share with the world its experience of Japanese wartime atrocities, including sexual violence against its women, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told Reuters.
Kang said South Korea was seeking to host an international conference on sexual violence in conflict in the first half of this year.
“We feel we have a lot to contribute to the discussion because we have the history of the comfort women and the victims,” she said in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The two Asian neighbours share a bitter history stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonisation of the Korean peninsula, the use of forced labour at Japanese companies, and the abuse of ‘comfort women’ – Japan’s euphemism for girls and women, many of them Korean, who were forced to work in its military brothels during World War Two.
“The conference is not to address (the comfort women) issue per se, but to make sure that their historical experience is not lost, and (is) registered in the international efforts to really come to terms with this issue,” Kang said.
The rows over wartime history have long been a stumbling block in relations between South Korea and Japan, two U.S. allies engaged in global efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.
Kang said that despite a “very difficult history”, Seoul would take a “two-track approach” to resolve the historical disputes while boosting cooperation on North Korea and security.
“There is a fundamental sense of lack of justice on the part of the victims,” Kang told Reuters. “And as we manage the past in a way that addresses the concerns of the victims, we also have to move along these many other tracks of collaboration.”
The feud has deepened in recent months after South Korean courts ordered Japanese firms to compensate former labourers, and Tokyo accused a South Korean destroyer of having locked a radar on a Japanese surveillance plane.
Japan maintains that the issue of forced labour was fully settled in 1965 when the two countries restored diplomatic ties, and has called the court rulings “unthinkable.”
Japan requested diplomatic consultations on the issue of forced labour on Jan. 9, asking South Korea to respond within 30 days. Kang said that Seoul would reply after considering “all elements”, based on the position that it respects the court decisions, but it has the victims “first in mind.”
But she said the country has no intention of revisiting the 1965 diplomatic treaty, dismissing recent suggestions made in local media that South Korea may propose discussing all unresolved issues involving the treaty.
Under the deal, South Korea received a package of $300 million in economic aid and $500 million in loans from Japan in exchange for Seoul considering all pre-treaty compensation issues settled. The money was spent to rebuild its infrastructure and economy, ravaged by the 1950-53 Korean War.
South Korea, under a former conservative administration, previously agreed to refrain from raising the comfort women issue in the international community, including the United Nations, as part of a 2015 deal with Japan under which Tokyo apologised to victims and provided 1 billion yen (7 million pounds) to a fund to help them.
Kang, who was appointed by liberal President Moon Jae-in in June 2017, has however said the 2015 pact failed to address the victims’ concerns, and in November the government said it would shut down the Japanese-funded foundation.