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Japan says it worked with South Korea on WWII sex slave apology

TOKYO — Japan consulted with South Korea when compiling a 1993 apology to women trafficked to its military brothels across Asia before and during World War II, according to a government-backed report issued Friday.

The Korean side urged Japan to include wording stating that the women were coerced, according to the report on the Kono Statement apologizing to the "comfort women." The study was released as the two governments sparred over South Korea holding live-fire military drills around tiny Japan Sea islets claimed by both nations.

South Korea "deeply" regrets Japan's investigation into the Kono statement and the report undermines confidence in the apology for wartime sex slavery, its foreign ministry said in a statement on its website. "Our government made it clear that the search for truth was not subject to bilateral negotiations, and only provided its view informally due to repeated requests from the Japanese side," it said.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye has said Japan must address the issue of the women, many from Korea, who were trafficked in the Imperial Army's military brothels, before ties between the two countries can improve. Abe and Park have yet to hold a bilateral summit. Relations between the two countries have also deteriorated since then-President Lee Myung-bak in August 2012 visited the disputed islets known as Dokdo in Korean and Takeshima in Japanese.

"In any case we will not revise the Kono Statement," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters just ahead of the release of the report to media. "On the problem of the comfort women, our hearts ache at the unbearable suffering inflicted. South Korea is our most important neighboring country and we place importance on relations."

Suga said in February an inquiry was needed into the background to the 1993 Kono Statement, in which Japan apologized to the comfort women.

Historians say anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women were made to serve Japanese troops in brothels across Asia. The Japanese government set up a fund to compensate victims, some of whom rejected the money because it came from private donors. The issue remains one of the biggest obstacles to improving Japanese-South Korean relations.

Japanese nationalists have long opposed making apologies over the military's wartime conduct. The comfort women investigation came in response to a demand in a parliamentary committee in February from Hiroshi Yamada, an opposition lawmaker with the Japan Restoration Party, who cited a Jan. 1 report in the Sankei newspaper that South Korea had been consulted in the process of drawing up the original statement.

Yamada Friday expressed dissatisfaction that documents backing up the report had not been released.

"If we don't show the proof to the international community, it's just painting over the debate we have already had," he told reporters. He said he would purse the issue in the budget committee and that it was possible he might seek a further study.

Suga told reporters Friday Japan could not accept South Korea's live-fire drills held near the disputed islets, adding that Japan had made a stern protest. Defense Ministry spokesman Wee Yong-sub said South Korea would not consider any demands to cancel its exercises.

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