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South Korea, Japan Reach Major Deal On Wartime Sex Slaves


Japan and Korea have struck a deal on an issue that may ease decades of suspicion and distrust between the two countries. Japan has agreed to support projects for World War II victims known as comfort women. Those are the estimated 200,000 sex slaves who serviced Japan's soldiers during the war. NPR's Elise Hu covers Japan and Korea for us and joins us now to talk more about it. And, Elise, start with the details of this agreement.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Well, Japan is formally apologizing and admitting the state was responsible for the system of comfort stations or brothels for soldiers in which mostly teenage girls were expected to service 60 to 70 men a day. That is from a U.N. report. Japan admitted the Imperial Army ordered the building of these brothels and the trafficking of the women. And now that it's been 70 years, there are only 46 remaining comfort women still alive in South Korea. So also in this deal, Japan is going to pay 1 billion yen - that's about 8 million U.S. dollars - to provide social services and health care to the surviving victims.

CORNISH: So why has it taken so long to come to a deal?

HU: Well, the U.S. has certainly been wanting this to happen since both Japan and Korea are longtime allies of the U.S. and this estranged relationship has prevented better cooperation. Technically, Japan and South Korea normalized their diplomatic ties 50 years ago, but this wasn't included in the Normalization Treaty because forced prostitution, coerced sex just was taboo to even talk about. The first comfort women didn't actually come forward until 1992, and since then, the issue has really been kicked up. Japan issued a 1993 acknowledgement on this. It's called the Kono Agreement. But in recent years, South Korea has been wanting an apology to go much further.

CORNISH: So this is a long time coming. What kind of reaction are you seeing in South Korea?

HU: Well, I think both South Korea and Japan consider this deal to be significant because so many folks on both sides had been pessimistic that any deal would happen at all. But whether it's going to actually unlock the tensions in the Northeast Asia region is still a big question. In South Korea, there's a lot of folks who are already saying this deal doesn't go far enough. And I had one source say that President Park will, quote, "get lots of love from D.C. for this" but that the money itself for the fund - $8 million - isn't that much and that the deal itself doesn't ensure that future generations will learn from history so not to repeat it.

CORNISH: So this is all political? I mean, what about the women themselves?

HU: Right. Well, historians I've talked to say the comfort women would have to really support this deal and accept the terms of it. Otherwise, it's kind of a horse trade between two governments rather than a real healing moment. But this has been a sticking point for both governments and their abilities to work together on both security issues and economic issues. And, frankly, there's been a ticking clock on a formal resolution for a while. Here's the Council on Foreign Relations Japan specialist Sheila Smith.

SHEILA SMITH: You see some compromise but also that they've managed to find a way to meet their principles on both sides but also deal with the fact that there are only now 46 of these women still live. And they're in their 90s, and they're coming to the end of their lives. And their children and their grandchildren, I think, would like to see some kind of closure for these women.

HU: And that said, this is important for reopening a conversation in both Japan and in Korea and on their respective understandings of history. Policymakers are going to be trumpeting this deal, but you know, as of now, we just don't know whether the women themselves who are actually victims will think this agreement is enough.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Elise Hu. She covers Korea and Japan. Elise, thanks so much.

HU: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.