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‘Comfort women’ deal likely to fuel Tokyo-Seoul military cooperation, aid Obama pivot

by and

Bloomberg

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?”

  • Manthinks

    ““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..”

    Hence, this confirms what many had suspected that so-called “landmark accord“ to end the decades long “Comfort Women” dispute is to serve American’s interest and its desire to continue its hegemony in the Asia Pacific rim, and NOT about addressing the ills and evils committed by the Japanese military only 70 years ago.

    Perhaps the current German government should also consider similar approach towards Israel by offering cash and “heart felt apology” to the victims of the Holocaust ?

    • Bec

      There will always be people like you who cry and complain about the crimes of another country, while ignoring your own! Japan is in the small minority of countries to account for its crimes of the past and try to make it right! Including giving dozens of apologies since the end of World War 2 and compensation in 65, then again in the 90s, Now again in 2015/2016 we have more apologies and compensation paid for a third time! We need more countries to do the right thing like Germany and Japan! It’s nice to have double standards for other people and countries! Follow their example then!!

      • Manthinks

        Can you tell me what are the similarities between Germany and Japan when comes school history lesson relating to WW2 ?

        We may in 2016, but many will not disagree how the legacy of WW2 still has enormous influence on us and the future generations even after dozens of “apologies and compensation” when certain institutions in Japan avoid sharing this grave experience with their young people.

      • Bec

        You’re not even Japanese or live in Japan, yet apparently you know how the young generation is being taught in schools! If that was true, you wouldn’t have dozens of apologies since 1946 like you mentioned it, yet apparently Japan waited too long to start the process!! In Japan, the only people opposed to this offer are in their sixties and seventies the old generation!! Not young people!
        Japan remembers World War 2 perfectly well, the only country to suffer two nuclear experimental bombs on civilian cities, untouched by war or bombs to see the consequences! Women, children, elderly who had nothing to do with the decisions of the government!!
        Japan has paid a huge price itself, and has apologized over 50 times since the end of World War 2 and pay compensation three times!!
        Besides Germany and Japan, countries don’t apologize for the crimes of their past! Or pay compensation!
        You also don’t have to start multiple conversations to make your point!!

      • Manthinks

        We know Japan taught their young ones very well about the nuclear bombings and that experience was reemphasized during each anniversary in Aug in the last 70 years – That isn’t a debate at all.

        Rather, you seems to avoid answering the very essence of my counter point when you attempt to compare Japan with Germany in facing their dark past only a generation ago..

        Allow me to repeat my question again:

        Can you tell me what are the similarities between Germany and Japan in their handling of school history lesson relating to WW2 ?

      • Bec

        Your argument is flawed, and it shows! If Japanese people did not know about their past crimes or World War 2 like you keep insisting. Then you wouldn’t have dozens of apologies, and compensation several times!!!
        Your bias and you have double standards!!
        Japan and Germany are in the small minority of countries to try to do the right thing and correct the past! Even though both countries are still facing resistance, and people who ask for more compensation or apologies!!

      • Manthinks

        My points are on the mark and exactly the real world why Japan today suffers from continued reminder of its own past while Germany has learn to accept theirs and continue their effort in educating their young about the mistake.

        This is why the Germans and their former-victims had learn to move on. What about Japan and its official institutions of self-denial and attempt to gross over the true barbarism not just in their children’s history text books, but also some of right-wing elements within the Japanese system today, such as Toshio Tamogam, Toru Hashimoto and of course Shintaro Ishihara…if these characters are allowed to run for political office in Germany today, they will be breaking anti-Nazism law and charged in court.

        I am curious if Japan’s domestic legal system prevent the repeat of such mistake. I am putting this as a warning to people of Japan – do not allow these characters to hijack the peace that you had painful earn after being nuked twice.

        If my argument had been flawed, you would not have avoided answering the simple question about what are the similarities between Germany and Japan in teaching of WW2 in their children school text books.

      • Bec

        Yes we’re teaching our kids to give dozens of apologies for the crimes of their Great Grandfather!! Make them pay compensation multiple times, including now in 2015/2016!!
        Many other countries in Asia also suffered during WW2!! Yet they have a very positive view of Japanese and want to work closer together economically and militarily!! India, Philippines, Burma, Mongolia even communist Vietnam who share a border with the CCP China are working closer with Japan and have a positive view towards Japanese!!
        South Korea and China are the ones who want apologies and compensation! They have a political reason as well! And one of those countries are currently invading large parts of Tibet and Muslim regions Illegally! and have killed Millions! Not 70 years ago!! But in your lifetime and their still doing it!!
        Like I said before, you should ask the same from your country! To do as Japan and Germany have done!!

  • Manthinks

    ““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..”

    Hence, this confirms what many had suspected that so-called “landmark accord“ to end the decades long “Comfort Women” dispute is to serve American’s interest and its desire to continue its hegemony in the Asia Pacific rim, and NOT about addressing the ills and evils committed by the Japanese military only 70 years ago.

    Perhaps the current German government should also consider similar approach towards Israel by offering cash and “heart felt apology” to the victims of the Holocaust ?

  • Bec

    Yes because those kids don’t have TV or Internet to hear about the dozens of apologies given, and compensation already!!
    You also mentioned that Japan waited too long to give compensation, yet many of the victim countries did not bring this up until the 80s and 90s!! Do your homework!!

    You call Abe a right wing! Yet he’s constantly willing to give apologies, including last year! Was willing to travel to China and meet with Xi, has met with President Park of Korea, is giving out compensation for a third time! Relations are improving. Not perfect!
    He’s such a right wing individual, yet his constantly willing to make exceptions, give apologies and compensation to improve relations even with those countries that consider us an enemy!
    You mentioned the Emperor and the class A criminals, yet you forgot to mention how in 2015 the Emperor himself gave apologies for what happened during world war 2, including the families of those Class A criminals who have also apologize for what happened! I guess is not sincere enough either!!
    You’re also not acknowledging that many other countries in Asia have also suffered, yet they support Japan and have a positive view towards Japanese!! Getting closer economically and militarily! Guess that doesn’t matter either!

    You’re very far from the truth! And your points are flawed!