South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Wednesday urged Japan to take sincere steps to resolve the long-standing grievances over Tokyo's wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women, saying the act was a violation of "universal human rights and historic justice."
Lee made the remarks during a "Liberation Day" address marking Korea's independence from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule, as tensions between the countries heightened after his surprise visit last week to a group of disputed islands on which the two countries have staked claim. However, Lee made no mention about the islet which is known as Dokdo in South Korea while Japan calls it Takeshima.
According to historians, tens of thousands of Asian women, mostly Koreans, were forced to work at front-line brothels for Japanese soldiers during World War II. Victims of sexual slavery have been euphemistically called "comfort women."
"Japan is a close neighbor, a friend that shares basic values and an important partner that we should work with to open the future. However, we have to point out that chain links tangled in the history of Korea-Japan relations are hampering the common march toward a better tomorrow in the North-East Asian region, as well as bilateral ties," the Yonhap news agency quoted Lee as saying.
Urging Japan to take responsible measures on the comfort women issue, Lee said their mobilization by the imperial Japanese military went beyond relations between Korea and Japan. "It was a breach of women's rights committed during wartime as well as a violation of universal human rights and historic justice."
Lee has repeatedly stressed that the comfort women issue is becoming increasingly urgent as most victims are elderly, well over 80 years, and may die before they receive compensation or an apology from Japan. Currently, there are only 60 victims alive.
Tokyo has been ignoring Seoul's demand for official talks on compensating the aging Korean women, claiming all issues regarding its colonial rule were settled in a 1965 package compensation deal under which the two countries normalized their relations.
Lee, who is in his final months of Presidency, sprang a surprise on Tuesday asking Japan's Emperor to apologize to Koreans who died in the struggle for independence from Japan.
In what appears to be a tit-for-tat action, two Japanese Cabinet members and about 50 lawmakers paid their respect by visiting Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine on Wednesday, a move that South Korea, China and other Asian nations have resented because such visits are considered to glorify Japan's imperialistic past.
It was the first time that Japanese Cabinet members have visited the shrine since the Democratic Party of Japan rose to power in September 2009. South Korea expressed regret over the visit and called it "irresponsible."
Also on Wednesday, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said Tokyo had lodged an official protest with South Korea over Lee's remarks on the country's emperor. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda also said he "cannot understand the remarks."
Political analysts have been watching with concern the current spats between the two powerful U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
by RTT Staff Writer
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