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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Japan-South Korea Settlement

Jan. 8, 2016

There is a potential turning point in Japan-South Korea relations as the two nations reached a final agreement on the issue of those referred to as comfort women during World War Two. People in both countries, and the international community, are taking a close look at the deal to see whether it can improve bilateral relations.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, held talks in Seoul on December 28. “I would like to confirm that this is our final, irreversible resolution of the issue,” Kishida announced after the meeting. “After having talks with Foreign Minister Kishida and doing everything possible, we were able to come to an agreement that both countries approve of,” said Yun.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised the deal. "I think that we as members of the current generation have fulfilled our responsibility. I hope this will be the first step toward Japan and South Korea joining forces and starting a new era in our relationship,” he said.

Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye spoke by phone. Abe conveyed to Park his sincere apologies and remorse for the women. Park said the issue would never be raised again if the new agreement is implemented.

The US government has repeatedly urged both sides to bridge the diplomatic divide. Secretary of State John Kerry said he welcomed the agreement on what he described as a sensitive, historical legacy issue. National Security Adviser Susan Rice also praised the two countries for forging a lasting settlement. She said she looks forward to seeing Japan, South Korea and the US strengthen their security cooperation.

In South Korea, media are divided over the deal. Maeil Business News Korea said it expects the agreement to deepen relations between the two countries. The JoongAng Daily offered some support, referring to Prime Minister Abe's apology in a headline. But it also cited criticism from a women's support group, and the paper said what it called the "fire" was still smoldering.

“The deal has facilitated the creation of a new relationship between South Korea and Japan,” said South Korean President Park Geun-hye. She is asking the South Korean public for its understanding of her decision.

Comfort women during World War Two were recruited to work in comfort stations overseas operated at the request of Japanese military authorities. During the latest negotiations, Foreign Minister Kishida stated that "the Japanese government is painfully aware of its responsibility," adding “Prime Minister Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as 'comfort women.'"

The two nations agreed that the Japanese government will contribute about one billion yen, or more than $8 million, to a foundation established by the South Korean government to restore the honor and dignity of the women, and to invest in projects that help heal their psychological wounds. They also decided the issue was finally and irreversibly resolved, on the premise that the Japanese government steadily implements the measures.

Foreign Minister Yun addressed Japan's concern about the statue of a girl symbolizing the comfort women that was built in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. He said "the South Korean government will make efforts to appropriately address the concern, including thorough consultations with relevant groups on possible responses."

Public opinion in South Korea remains divided over the agreement.

Every Wednesday since 1992, members of civic groups supporting comfort women have been gathering in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. At the first rally this year, many opposed the bilateral agreement, saying it fails to recognize Japan's legal responsibility. "What victims are demanding is an official apology and compensation from the Japanese government. This agreement is invalid,” said one participant.

The response has been more positive in other circles. The Korea National Diplomatic Academy hosted a seminar last week where experts on Japan-South Korea relations called on support groups to accept the deal, even if it was not perfect. They argued that the victims are getting old, and that bilateral relations need to move forward.

“One way to obtain the understanding of people opposing the agreement may be to have Japan's Ambassador to South Korea, or other high-ranking officials, read out Abe's letter of apology in front of the victims,” said Kookmin University professor Lee Wondeog. "South Korean officials, including President Park Geun-hye and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, should also meet the victims face-to-face and explain sincerely and candidly how the negotiations with Japan unfolded and what the two sides have agreed to,” he added.

A growing number of people are calling on President Park to personally ask the surviving comfort women to accept the agreement. South Korea's first female president has always placed considerable emphasis on the comfort women issue, but the question now is whether she is willing to involve herself directly - and risk a public backlash - to make the thorny issue a problem of the past.

Masao Okonogi, a professor emeritus at Keio University in Tokyo and an expert on the Korean Peninsula, was interviewed by Newsroom Tokyo presenter Sho Beppu.

Beppu: The deal has received a mixed response in South Korea. Some people are strongly critical of it. What impact do you think this will have on President Park Geun-hye's administration?

Okonogi: President Park is true to her principles. She advocates diplomacy based on trust and principles, and puts top priority on building a basis for mutual trust. Once such a foundation is in place, she intends to build relations by laying bricks, one by one. I take this to mean that she won't give up on this agreement. This approach is typical of Park's style of leadership. I feel that her character might have been influenced by her father, former President Park Chung-hee.

Beppu: How do you think the Japanese government should work with President Park from now on?

Okonogi: The two sides are in the same boat; they can't fail. Action must be taken based on the principle that supporting the other party will ultimately support oneself. I think the Japanese side also has to take proactive measures to handle criticism inside South Korea against the president, for instance, or criticism from former comfort women and support groups. The Japanese government and the Japanese people should be aware of how important it is to try to help heal the scars in the hearts of these women.

Beppu: What do you think the Japanese people should do now that there's an agreement?

Okonogi: I think there will be more cultural exchanges and travel between the two countries. We've overcome many problems in the past, but there are things that Japanese people shouldn't forget concerning the background of this situation, or history, in other words. I think they should try to build a new relationship with South Korea while keeping that in mind.

Senior NHK World correspondent Kengo Okamoto, a Korean affairs specialist, joined Newroom Tokyo presenters Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya to discuss the way forward.

Shibuya: There's mounting protest in South Korea to the agreement. What's the biggest obstacle to making sure it lasts?

Okamoto: Removing the statue from in front of the Japanese embassy is crucial. South Korean officials are trying hard to gain the understanding of the former comfort women and their supporters. But they're facing strong resistance and anger from them. A South Korean official told me this is partly because Japan's foreign minister mentioned the statue. After the joint announcement, Fumio Kishida stated his recognition that the statue would be appropriately relocated. The official said Kishida's comment suggests both countries had reached agreement on its relocation. It is believed that Japanese leaders are insisting that the statue be removed to implement the agreement. If it stays outside the Japanese embassy, Japan might stop paying into the South Korean fund. So Japanese leaders are closely watching how their counterparts deal with the problem.

Beppu: How do you see the future of the comfort women issue, and the relationship between Japan and South Korea? How does it affect security throughout Asia?

Okamoto: I do believe the agreement is historic. It has already had a good impact on defense cooperation between the two countries. President Park talked on the phone with Japanese Prime Minister Abe after North Korea's nuclear test. Both leaders admitted this would have been impossible without the settlement of the comfort women issue. These close ties, including with the US, are quite important for stability in East Asia. President Park says no future government can address such sensitive issues if the people don't accept the hard-won agreement. Both leaders should put the issue behind them and focus on working together on other pressing problems. To preserve the agreement, they must avoid offending the other side.