Japanese ex-prime minister meets comfort women on S. Korea tour

'Comfort Woman' Kim Bok-dong (in brown scarf and black top) protests outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

Story highlights

  • Ex-Japanese P.M. met former comfort women during three-day visit to South Korea
  • Murayama will not meet the country's president, who says she's too busy
  • Former leader is perhaps best known for his 1995 apology to victims of Japanese aggression
  • Tells Korean lawmakers that Abe will "ultimately uphold" 1995 Statement

While recent nationalist gestures from Japan's political rulers continue to rile neighbors South Korea and China, a former prime minister is aiming to make some amends in his own way.

Tomiichi Murayama, who served as the nation's premier from 1994 to 1996, visited South Korea this week for a three-day visit, during which he met with former comfort women in Seoul.

On Tuesday, the first day of the 89-year-old's trip, he attended an exhibition of art made by women who had endured sexual slavery at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army. He was presented with an artwork entitled "Flower destroyed unbloomed" and shook the hands of the three former comfort women in attendance.

Murayama told them to "stay healthy." One of the three, Kang Ul-Chul, told him that the Japanese government should fully apologize and offer compensation.

Murayama said Japan's wartime policy of providing comfort women to its troops meant that it had committed "indescribable wrongdoings," the Japan Times reported.

The number of women who were enslaved by the Japanese from around 1932 during the colonization of the Korean peninsula up to and during the World War II, is dwindling.

Hwang Keum-ja, an 89-year-old who was lured into sexual slavery in Japan's "comfort stations" during World War II, died earlier this month.

READ MORE: Another voice lost, Korean 'comfort woman dies

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Only 55 of the approximately 200,000 women subjected to the ordeal from around 1932 remain living. The issue of comfort women, and the Japanese acknowledgement of them, is controversial and consistently topical in South Korea.

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs states: "Japan has extended its sincere apologies and remorse to all those women on various occasions such as an apology statement by the Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993." The country has helped establish the Asian Women's Fund in 1995, which is supported by government funds and provides assistance to former comfort women.

But it has resisted direct payments to the victims, prompting activists and former comfort women to say leaders are avoiding officially acknowledging what happened. Japan maintains that a 1965 treaty between the two nations have settled wartime compensation claims.

The South Korean government however does not believe this is enough. Along with the surviving comfort women, it is calling for an official government apology, acknowledging legal responsibility for the crimes. Seoul wants Tokyo to provide direct compensation to the victims.

Murayama is perhaps best-known for his 1995 address, known as the Murayama Statement, in which he apologized to the victims of Japanese aggression during World War II. It was hailed as a significant step and a catalyst for improving relations between Japan and its neighbors.

Murayama also spoke at Korea's National Assembly this week, as part of a trip organized by Korea's minor opposition Justice Party, as well as meeting members of both the ruling party and the opposition.

The country's president, Park Geun-hye, declined to meet Murayama, citing her schedule. She has previously refused to engage with the Japanese government until it fully acknowledges South Korea's historical grievances.

Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has ruffled his East Asian neighbors' feathers recently through high-profile nationalistic gestures, including a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines the souls of some of Japan's war dead -- including several war criminals, and by suggesting that the Murayama statement be revised.

Kyodo news reported that Murayama told Korean lawmakers on Wednesday that that Abe has said he will "ultimately uphold" the Murayama statement, but stopped short of elaborating on when Abe made the pledge.

Territorial disputes -- most notably the claim of both countries on the islands known as Dokdo by South Koreans and Takeshima by the Japanese -- have added to the tension.

READ: Another voice lost, Korean 'comfort woman' dies

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READ: The CNN Freedom Project: South Korea's 'juicy bars': one woman's story of slavery and escape