December 31, 2015 / 8:24 AM / 2 years ago

South Korea defends accord with Japan to settle 'comfort women' issue

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea defended on Thursday an agreement with Japan to settle the issue of “comfort women” following criticism it was inadequate, saying it was the best any government could do in the lifetimes of the elderly victims of abuse.

Students hold portraits of deceased former South Korean "comfort women" during a weekly anti-Japan rally in front of Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea, December 30, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

Under Monday’s agreement, South Korea confirmed the issue of “comfort women,” as those forced to work in Japan’s wartime military brothels are euphemistically known, was resolved “finally and irreversibly”, if Japan faithfully took steps to help survivors.

But some of the known 46 surviving victims have criticized the deal saying they were not consulted on the negotiations and it did not go far enough. Many other South Koreans have been critical and the political opposition called it “degrading”.

The office of President Park Geun-hye acknowledged that any agreement would be inadequate given what the women faced after being forced to work in brothels during Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of Korea.

“The scars of the comfort women issue are too deep so that in reality any conclusion reached will only be short of what is needed,” the president’s office said in a statement.

But scrapping the result of the government’s “best effort” would mean nothing would be done, it said.

“No future government will try to tackle this complicated issue.”

To reject this agreement would turn the clock back 24 years, the office said, referring to 1991 when what had for decades been largely unknown, unspoken of abuse came into the open with the first ever testimony of a victim.

In all, 238 women came forward to acknowledge abuse. Only 46 survive and their average age is 89.

“There will be nothing more for the government to do in the elderly women’s lifetime,” if the deal was rejected, the office said.

Scholars debate how many women were exploited. Activists say there may have been as many as 200,000 Korean victims.

The issue has long soured ties between the U.S. allies and the United States welcomed the accord.

On Wednesday, two surviving victims joined a rally outside Japan’s embassy, criticizing the government for not pushing Japan hard enough and calling for it to pay formal compensation.

Under the agreement, Japan will pay about 1 billion yen ($8 million) into a fund to help survivors and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe renewed an apology. But Japan has declined to call the money compensation.

In a poll of 508 people released on Thursday, 51 percent of them said the government did a poor job negotiating the agreement while 43 percent said it did well.

Reporting by Jack Kim and Ju-min Park; Editing by Robert Birsel

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