Some in Seoul saw the deal, while not perfect, as an important step forward.
"If we brushed aside this deal, the 'comfort women' issue would remain unresolved forever," said Lee Won Deog, the director of Institute of Japanese Studies at Seoul's Kookmin University. "Elderly women would die one by one. South Korea and Japan would engage in history wars and find it harder to improve ties."
Many South Koreans continue to feel bitterness over Japan's brutal colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. But South Korean officials have faced calls to improve ties with Japan, the world's No. 3 economy and a regional powerhouse, not least from U.S. officials eager for a strong united front against a rising China and North Korea's pursuit of nuclear-armed missiles that could target the U.S. mainland.
Japan appeared emboldened to make the overture to Seoul after the first formal meeting between the neighbors' leaders in over three years, in November, and after South Korean courts recently acquitted a Japanese reporter charged with defaming Park and refused to review a complaint by a South Korean seeking individual compensation for Japan's forceful mobilization of workers during colonial days.
Seoul said it will refrain from criticizing Japan over the issue and will talk with "relevant organizations" — a reference to civic groups representing the former sex slaves — to try to resolve Japan's grievance over a statue of a girl representing victims of Japanese sexual slavery that sits in front of the Japanese Embassy in downtown Seoul. Yun said South Korea recognizes Japan's worries about security over the statue, where anti-Tokyo protests take place weekly.
There has long been resistance in South Korea to past Japanese apologies because many there wanted Japan to acknowledge that it has a legal responsibility to the women.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida later emphasized in a closed-door briefing with Japanese reporters that Tokyo considers the 1 billion yen not compensation but "a project to relieve emotional scars and provide healing for the victims." It will include medical services, health checks and other support for the women, he said. All compensation issues between the countries were settled by a 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic ties and was accompanied by more than $800 million in economic aid and loans from Tokyo to Seoul, he said.
But he said the "comfort women" system "deeply hurt the honor and dignity of many women under the involvement of the Japanese military at the time, and Japan strongly feels responsibility."
Better relations between South Korea and Japan are a priority for Washington. The two countries together host about 80,000 U.S. troops and are participants in now stalled regional talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions in return for aid.
The Associated Press