Japan and South Korea’s landmark accord to end the divisive “comfort women” dispute will lead to increased economic and military cooperation between the U.S. allies, complementing the Obama administration’s efforts to counter China’s rise and North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling.
The two countries on Monday announced a “final and irreversible” agreement over women and girls who were coerced to serve in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II. Under the deal, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government apologized, saying it is “painfully aware” of its responsibility for their suffering and will finance a fund for the about four dozen surviving Korean comfort women.
Tensions over the issue have risen since Abe came to power three years ago, complicating U.S. efforts to build a united front with its North Asian allies as the Obama administration looks to expand its military and strategic re-balance to the region.
With China becoming more aggressive in asserting territorial claims and signs that North Korea has been expanding its nuclear arsenal, the U.S. has been trying to prod Japan and South Korea to resolve the issue and step up strategic cooperation.
“We support this agreement and its full implementation, and believe this comprehensive resolution is an important gesture of healing and reconciliation that should be welcomed by the international community,” U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said in a statement. “We look forward to deepening our work with both nations on a wide range of regional and global issues, on the basis of mutual interests and shared values, as well as to advancing trilateral security cooperation.”
The U.S. has more than 75,000 service members based in the two countries, and they are key components of its effort to maintain military superiority in the region. In recent months, the U.S. Navy has begun to challenge China over its territorial claims to most of the South China Sea and has looked to its allies for support. Seoul and Tokyo, both in range of Pyongyang’s missiles, rely on the U.S. to help deter North Korean aggression.
“The United States has been always, always, always looking for ways for these two to cooperate,” said Robert Kelly, an international relations professor at Pusan National University in South Korea. “The easiest way forward on the military and diplomatic side would be to do the intelligence-sharing agreement that was almost reached a few years ago. That was basically about to go through and it literally sank.”
Those talks were suspended in 2012, the same year that Abe returned to power. Abe enjoys support from Japanese nationalists who deny the military forced the women into sexual servitude and he infuriated South Korea’s public in 2013 when he visited Yasukuni Shrine, seen by many in Asia as a symbol of past militarism.
Abe offered a personal apology over the comfort women to South Korean President Park Geun-hye in a phone call after Monday’s agreement, and the two leaders agreed to strengthen military ties, Hiroshige Seko, the deputy chief Cabinet secretary, told reporters in Tokyo.
President Barack Obama has pushed Abe and Park to overcome their differences. In March 2014, he persuaded Park to agree to a three-way meeting with Abe at a conference on nuclear proliferation in The Hague. Park had previously refused to meet Abe until Japan did more to deal with its wartime legacy.
More than a year of behind the scenes talks would pass before Park held a bilateral meeting with Abe in Seoul in November that helped pave the way for Monday’s agreement.
“The U.S. is the key ally for Japan and South Korea, and the Americans’ view is important. They don’t care who is right or wrong, they just want the two allies to work together,” said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan campus.
Activist groups helping the former comfort women rejected Monday’s agreement, calling it a “betrayal” of the victims as it fails to stipulate Japan’s systematic coercion and exploitation while Abe did not apologize himself in public. Calling it “shocking” that their government would put the issue to rest, the groups that include a shelter for the victims said in a statement that they will continue to put pressure on Japan.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency called the agreement “significant progress” in resolving historical issues among East Asian nations while saying Japan should be reminded many other comfort women came from China and Southeast Asia.
“If Japan were truly sincere in its remorse and apologies regarding the issue of ‘comfort women,’ it would have apologized to and compensated its victims regardless of their nationalities,” it said in an editorial.
China has been calling on South Korea to help with its campaign to make the world more aware of its suffering during the Japanese invasion, successfully having documents on the Nanking Massacre listed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World register. Earlier this month a memorial for wartime sex slaves opened in Jiangsu province, Xinhua reported.
Bilateral trade between Japan and South Korea has also suffered as the tensions escalated, and with their economies struggling the agreement may also have been spurred by both countries looking for ways to boost commerce.
Shipments fell by about $20 billion between 2012 and 2014 on a mix of the yen’s depreciation and the fallout from the tensions. With Japan’s economy teetering near recession and South Korean exports declining every month this year, the two countries are looking for ways to shore up growth.
“Not only economic factors but political frigidities have contributed to the decline in investment and trade in recent years,” said Sakong Mok, who researches South Korea-Japan ties at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade in Sejong.
Improved relations may help spur Japanese investment in South Korea and improve the chance for the two countries to negotiate the revival of a currency swap, which expired early this year, Sakong said.
Park told Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Seoul on Monday that the agreement could be a new starting point for bilateral relations.
“The issue of historical disputes can be seen as mostly resolved and it’s now time for the two sides to talk about the real issues that affect their interests, not only how they are going to boost their trade but also how they will work together with the U.S. to reshape the geopolitical order of the region,” said Jin Chang-soo, director of Japan studies at the nonprofit Sejong Institute, near Seoul.
Resentment over Japan’s wartime legacy runs deep in South Korea, which suffered under Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. Historians say anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women — many of them Korean — were forced into service in Japan’s military brothels.
Japan offered an apology in 1993 and set up a compensation fund that was rejected by some victims because it was a private fund. The issue became more divisive under Abe, given the nationalist leanings of some in his administration and his own comments questioning whether comfort women were coerced into service.
This year’s 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II focused world attention on the country’s war legacy and the comfort women. The fact that many of the survivors are in their 90s lent urgency to an agreement.
“It’s good news for the U.S. for sure,” said Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea chair at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The inability to cooperate at the highest level among the three allies was an embarrassment for Obama’s pivot to Asia. How can you pivot to Asia when your two closest allies won’t talk to each other?”