Ambassador Choi Suk-inn has been tasked with resolving a dispute involving Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women, which has remained unsettled since the end of World War II. The issue has often frayed diplomatic ties with Tokyo, yet the government has come nowhere near to a fundamental solution, largely due to Japan’s refusal to cooperate.
In a recent interview with The Korea Times, Choi said he is “braced for all situations that could arise” and will “never compromise with Japan.”
The senior diplomat chairs a task force established in September to deal with the tricky issue under the umbrella of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT).
“Our ultimate goal is making Japan acknowledge its legal liability for the wartime atrocity and compensate victims accordingly,” he said. “We will never accept any proposal from Japan to settle the problem unless it makes a formal apology and provides compensation.”
Choi said if Tokyo keeps up with its current stance, the government will forward the case for international arbitration.
“This is a step we have never taken ever before,” he said. “If deemed necessary, however, the government is willing to take it.” He refused to elaborate on the administration’s strategy on arbitration, citing the sensitive nature of the issue.
This fresh path toward resolution comes after Japan refused to accept MOFAT’s proposal to hold a bilateral meeting to discuss the matter. The foreign ministry made the first proposal in September and sent a second one in mid-November.
“What matters is when and how we take the case to international arbitration,” he said. “Nothing has been decided on yet.”
So far, several presidents have repeatedly demanded that Tokyo apologize for the sexual enslavement of Korean women for frontline Japanese soldiers, euphemistically called “comfort women,” and offer due compensation to the victims. The United States and the United Nations have joined the diplomatic maneuver, defining sexual slavery as a “war crime.”
Hundreds of people, including five victims, staged a landmark 1,000th weekly rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on Dec. 14, making their long-running outcry heard worldwide. In the latest effort, President Lee Myung-bak urged Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in an unusually strong tone to resolve the issue during a summit on Dec. 18, calling it a “stumbling block” in relations between the two countries. But all of these moves have fallen short of convincing Japan.
The neighboring country keeps insisting that its legal liability for the wrongdoing was cleared by a Seoul-Tokyo treaty signed in 1965 to normalize diplomatic ties. Korea was Japan’s colony from 1910-1945. Feeling pressured by escalating international criticism, Japan recently moved to coddle victims here with handsome compensation from a state fund, a move to resolve the dispute while avoiding a first-hand apology. Choi said this was unacceptable.
“This is not a matter of money,” he underscored. “It’s a matter of pride for our country and the victims. I will never step back in negotiations with Japan.”
Seoul has been taking such actions since its Constitutional Court ruled in August that it was unconstitutional for the government to make no specific effort to settle the matter with Tokyo.
Historians say that tens of thousands of Asian women, mostly Koreans, were forced into sexual servitude at frontline Japanese brothels during World War II. A total of 234 women were registered with the government as former comfort women — of them only 63, mostly in their 80s and 90s, are still alive.