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Opinion: Healing the wounds of 'comfort women'

Former South Korean comfort women who were forced

Former South Korean comfort women who were forced to serve for the Japanese Army as a sexual slave during World War II shout slogans during a rally against Japan in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea. (May 29, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

One way America can exert influence in Asia is by addressing the emotional controversy surrounding the "comfort women" issue that has poisoned relations between Korea and Japan -- two of our key allies in the region. It won't be an easy task: U.S. policy makers must help to heal a historic rift between Korea and Japan over a human rights issue that's not critical to many Americans.

Some background: "Comfort women" is a Japanese euphemism for women who were forced into sexual slavery. During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army enslaved women in "comfort stations" where Japanese soldiers raped them. The women hailed from Korea, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, among other nations. The number of women sexually enslaved is unknown, but some experts estimate there were as many as 200,000.

Korea and Japan normalized relations in 1965, but the wounds from the exploitation of women have not healed. Japan says it dealt with the issue during that process, but Korea disagrees. During an earlier term as Japan's prime minister, from 2006 to 2007, Shinzo Abe argued that there was no evidence that the comfort women had been coerced. Back in office, he speaks more cautiously but some believe he still clings to that revisionist view. But he's not alone in discounting the searing pain of the era. Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka, has said the wartime system was "necessary" to help boost military discipline.

Meanwhile, the Korean Constitutional Court ruled in 2011 that Seoul's inaction violated the constitution by "not performing its duty to help its people, whose dignity was severely damaged, obtain their rights."

This is a human rights issue, one that demands a greater sense of urgency by Korea, Japan and America. The abused women who are still alive deserve justice before they die.

Korea and Japan have had some discussions, but there's no movement toward agreement. Both sides are bristling. The Japanese have reacted sharply to the statue of a comfort woman, placed across the street from their embassy in Seoul by a civic group, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. And Korean President Park Geun-hye said earlier this year that Japan's position on the issue is impeding building a relationship of trust.

On Long Island and in Albany, the Korean-American community has persuaded legislators that this is an important issue. In June 2012, with help from Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, the Korean American Public Affairs Committee was able to place a monument to the comfort women in Eisenhower Park. Later, Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove) sponsored a resolution commending our community. The Senate passed its own resolution, sponsored by Sen. Tony Avella (D-Whitestone) and nearly every other senator.

Despite that support, we've experienced the issue's volatility on Long Island. When I mentioned to Korean media some preliminary discussions about a future comfort women exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center in Glen Cove, the mere possibility set off an avalanche of criticism from Japanese groups, which argued the abuse did not happen.

In 2007, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution urging that Japan's prime minister offer a formal apology, that Japan provide compensation and educate future generations about this shameful history. That's what Koreans want.

And it would help if the United States firmly nudged both countries to heal the wound.

David Chulwoo Lee is president of the Korean American Public Affairs Committee, an Oyster Bay-based non-profit.