S. Korean officials seek comfort women's support for landmark deal

Seoul (AFP) - South Korean officials met former wartime sex slaves Tuesday to seek support for a landmark deal with Japan, amid criticism Tokyo has not fully atoned for its treatment of women forced into World War II army brothels.

Japan on Monday offered a "heartfelt apology" and a one-billion yen ($8.3 million) payment to the 46 South Korean victims still alive, under an agreement which both sides described as "final and irreversible."

The plight of the so-called "comfort women" has been a hugely emotional issue and has marred relations with Japan for decades.

Officials of both nations hailed the deal as a breakthrough. But South Korean media and the women themselves had a mixed response, taking issue particularly with Tokyo's refusal to accept formal legal responsibility.

Seoul's vice foreign ministers visited two comfort women shelters Tuesday to seek the victims' support -- a step which will be key to securing popular approval.

But some expressed anger, accusing the officials of complacency and of hastily wrapping up negotiations.

"The matter has not been settled. We didn't fight for all these years to see the result like this," frail survivor Kim Bok-Dong, 89, told vice-minister Lim Sung-Nam at a Seoul shelter in televised comments.

The long-time campaigner was lured to leave her village aged 14 with a promise of a factory job, and forced to serve in military brothels in China and Southeast Asia.

Lim said Seoul had tried its best to achieve some form of justice -- albeit compromised -- "before too late" as most victims are at an advanced age.

Japan, which ruled Korea harshly from 1910-45, refuses to describe the one-billion-won payment as official compensation.

It has long said that all such claims were settled in a 1965 agreement which established diplomatic relations with South Korea and saw Tokyo make a payment of $800 million in grants or loans.

The South says that treaty did not cover compensation for victims of wartime crimes such as sex slavery, and did not absolve the Japanese government of legal responsibility.

But it has faced growing pressure from its major military ally the US to improve ties with fellow US ally Japan, in the face of an expansionist China and nuclear-armed North Korea.

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye called for "understanding by the public and the victims" about the deal.

The agreement was warmly welcomed by the US, which described it "an important gesture of healing and reconciliation".

- 'Diplomatic collusion' -

But six civic groups including those running the shelters have slammed it as "humiliating", and objected to Seoul's promise to refrain from criticising Japan over the issue in international forums including the United Nations.

"Our longstanding wish was... clarifying legal responsibility over this crime committed by the Japanese government so that such a tragedy will never happen again," they said in a joint statement.

"The latest agreement appears to be nothing but a diplomatic collusion that betrayed such wishes of the victims."

Reaction on Twitter was largely critical. "How could such a humiliating and lax agreement be 'final and irreversible'? The victims will never accept that!" tweeted @prettykw.

The top-selling daily, the conservative Chosun Ilbo, hailed Monday's agreement as a "positive" development but noted its limits.

"The deal made Japan admit its responsibility only indirectly and allowed it to avoid formal legal responsibility," it said in an editorial, urging more efforts to win support from the victims.

Another major daily, JoongAng Ilbo, also welcomed the agreement but added that Seoul was faced with the daunting challenge of winning support from many South Koreans who harbour deep-rooted distrust of Japan.

That fear was also expressed in Japan on Tuesday, though overall reaction from the media and opposition parties was broadly positive.

But some 200 chanting nationalists, carrying flags and singing the national anthem, lashed out at the accord at a rally outside Abe's office in Tokyo, calling it treacherous and disgraceful.

Seoul has vowed to try to relocate a statue symbolising comfort women which stands in front of the Japanese embassy.

The promise drew strong criticism from civic groups which described any relocation as "unimaginable."

- Taiwan seeks apology -

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou has also urged Japan, which ruled the island from 1895-1945, to take the same measures over Taiwanese comfort women.

"The government's stance is to demand the Japanese government apologise to the comfort women from our country during World War II, to compensate them, and to return justice and dignity to them," Ma told reporters Tuesday.

"We hope the Japanese government can do better and take better care of the comfort women's welfare and dignity. Our stance has not changed."

Foreign Minister David Lin said Taipei had called for further negotiations with Tokyo on the issue.