For a long time, the South Korean government had taken a basic policy toward the Japanese government regarding the comfort women issue of "not making monetary demands."
The administration of Kim Young-sam, which began in February 1993, formulated a policy of having the South Korean government provide monetary support to former comfort women, and in return, asked Japan to take such steps as seeking truths and promoting educational guidance for young people.
In February 1998, the Kim Dae-jung administration, which succeeded the Kim Young-sam administration, also valued friendship between Japan and South Korea.
At that time, some opposition was raised in Japan toward including the comfort women issue in Japanese school textbooks. However, Seoul avoided treating the comfort women issue as a pressing matter between Japan and South Korea and did not make it a diplomatic issue.
The administration of Roh Moo-hyun, which was established in February 2003, basically followed the same course.
However, a campaign in South Korea to clarify the negotiation process that led to the Japan-South Korea Treaty on Basic Relations, which was concluded in 1965, intensified and lawsuits were filed seeking the disclosure of relevant documents.
After a court order for disclosure was issued, the South Korean government disclosed in August 2005 all documents from the South Korean side. At the same time, it took the position that South Koreans who were left behind in Sakhalin, former comfort women and atomic bomb survivors living in South Korea were exempt under the Japan-South Korea agreement on property and claim rights, which included provisions for the relinquishment of property rights by South Koreans.
In the wake of that move, citizens groups took legal action regarding the comfort women issue, saying that the South Korean government was not doing enough.
Five years after their legal action, the Constitutional Court of Korea handed down a ruling in August 2011 that once again pushed the comfort women issue into a major diplomatic concern between Japan and South Korea.
While the Japanese government had argued that all claim rights had expired under the agreement, the Constitutional Court of Korea ruled that it was unconstitutional for the South Korean government to not negotiate with the Japanese government over whether individual compensation for former comfort women should be considered an exemption to the agreement or not.
However, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade initially limited its action to seeking negotiations to iron out the different interpretations over the agreement on claim rights. Then South Korean President Lee Myung-bak did not bring up the comfort women issue in his meeting in October 2011 with visiting Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
ERECTING OF STATUE OF YOUNG GIRL
The situation, however, changed. December 2011 marked the 1,000th protest gathering that had been held weekly in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul by support groups for the comfort women. To commemorate the occasion, a statue of a young girl to symbolize the issue was erected at that site. That led to a sudden worsening of sentiment within Japan.
At the summit meeting between Japan and South Korea that was held soon thereafter in Kyoto, the South Korean side broached a proposal to seek a comprehensive solution to such problems as the comfort women issue, a Japan-South Korean Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and a Japan-South Korea Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA). However, no agreement was reached, and the meeting instead turned into an exchange by both leaders over the comfort women issue.
In March 2012, Vice Foreign Minister Kenichiro Sasae visited South Korea and proposed having the Japanese ambassador visit former comfort women to express sympathy as well as implementing a support program for the former comfort women through Japanese government spending.
While the proposal went beyond the level of requests made toward Japan until then, the South Korean side rejected the proposal on the grounds "there is a need for a proposal that can be accepted by a consensus of the former comfort women, their support groups and others."
In July 2012, South Korean Ambassador Shin Kak-soo and others, under instructions from Lee, tried to find a solution. However, this time Japan took a more rigid stance and did not accept the proposal.
Moreover, in August 2012, Lee became the first sitting South Korean president to visit the disputed Takeshima islets. Immediately after his trip, a high-ranking South Korean government official gave Japan's "insincere response" on the comfort women issue as a reason for Lee's visit. That led to strong opposition from the Japanese side. Although the two nations exchanged special envoys behind the scenes to resolve the issue, no progress was made.
STUDY OF THE KONO STATEMENT
The circumstances surrounding the comfort women issue became more complicated after the Park Geun-hye administration was established in February 2013.
Due to a feeling of mistrust toward the Abe administration, the Park administration refused to hold a summit meeting. In the meantime, the South Korean government made a behind-the-scene request that would include in addition to the "Sasae proposal" an expression by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his own words to "stick to the Murayama statement and Kono statement" and to not use the term "humanitarian support" for assistance based on government spending toward the comfort women.
At that stage, the policy from the time of the Kim Young-sam administration of "not making monetary demands" collapsed.
Negotiations were broken off with the visit to Yasukuni Shrine by Abe in December 2013.
In 2014, discussions on the comfort women issue started among officials at the level of the bureau directors-general in the foreign ministries of the two nations.
However, with the release on June 20, 2014, by the Japanese government of the results of the study into the Kono statement, the South Korean government hardened its attitude because it felt the report arbitrarily edited the contents of the negotiations between Japan and South Korea.
According to a South Korean government source, South Korean 1st Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yong met with Japanese Ambassador Koro Bessho on June 23 and criticized the report, saying "it will hurt Japan's credibility and its international reputation."
The South Korean government has begun preparations to publish and release a white paper on the comfort women issue.