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Comfort Women Issue Strains S. Korea-Japan Relations

People watch South Korean President Park Geun-hye's speech on small screens fitted in their seats during a ceremony celebrating the 96th anniversary of the Independence Movement Day in Seoul, March 1, 2015.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has repeated her demand for Japan to make amends for atrocities committed during World War II, including forcing more than 200,000 women in Asia to work as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers. Rising nationalism in Asia has given new life to this 70-year-old grievance and is complicating relations between Tokyo and its neighbors.

Apology, human trafficking

During a speech given on Korea’s Independence Movement Day, a day that commemorates the beginning of resistance to Japanese colonial rule 96 years ago, Park said she hopes Japan acknowledges the historical truth, courageously and honestly and writes a new history with South Korea for next 50 years as a partner.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II but in the eyes of South Korea and China and some other Asian countries, Japan has still not demonstrated sincere remorse for one of the world’s biggest cases of human trafficking. From 1932 to 1945, the Japanese Imperial Army enslaved thousands of women and girls from across Asia, some as young as 12 years old, to become comfort women or prostitutes for soldiers.

In South Korea there are only a few elderly comfort women still alive but the issue has become even more contentious since Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe adopted a less apologetic tone toward Japan’s wartime past.

Nationalism, pride

Anger at Japan over this issue is so pervasive in South Korea, Lee Won-deok, a professor of international studies at Kookmin University said it has a become a unifying nationalist concern.

He said public opinion of South Korea highly supports that the historical issue must be solved and that relations between South Korea and Japan can improve.

The strained relations between the two countries have manifested in minor ways so far. President Park has refused to meet with Prime Minister Abe until this matter is resolved and there are competing territorial claim to a set of islands.

Abe has downplayed past abuses to build up Japanese pride and political support for a stronger defense posture. Some of his conservative allies have suggested that not all the women were forced into prostitution.

Shihoko Goto a Northeast Asia analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. said this issue will be difficult to resolve in the current context in a way that will satisfy nationalists in both countries.

But she said South Korea could find common ground if the leaders make it less of an issue about past grievances and more about global cooperation to end forced prostitution practices around the world.

“Human trafficking is very much a reality to this day. Sexual slavery is not something in the past," she noted. " If they really want to take ownership of this, they can do that. And then there is potential for the two countries to actually come together.”

Abe is expected to uphold past apologies for Japan’s wartime aggression when he makes a statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. But he also drew criticism recently when he suggested he might alter the original wording of the landmark 1995 remarks by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama.

VOA News Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.