Whether the agreement reached by Japan and South Korea this week resolves the wartime “comfort women” issue “finally and irreversibly” will depend not only on the resolve of both governments, but also on the willingness of the citizens of both countries to move relations forward by overcoming mutual differences and put an end to the vicious cycle that prevents the two East Asian neighbors from moving toward “future-oriented” ties that their leaders have advocated for decades.
It is a compromise deal that may not satisfy all of the concerned parties, particularly the surviving Korean women who were sent to front-line brothels for Japanese troops before and during World War II. Since many of the basic differences over the sensitive issue were put aside for the sake of an agreement, public reactions in both countries may be hard to predict, depending on how the accord will be implemented. But we should welcome the deal if it contributes to ending the distrust between the two neighbors, whose relations, despite the close economic ties and exchanges of people, have so frequently been marred by issues deriving from Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 as well as the territorial row over the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan.
The agreement stated that the issue of comfort women “with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities” during the wartime was “a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women” taken to the front-line brothels and that “the government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective.” It also featured Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “most sincere apologies and remorse” to the women. Japan will contribute ¥1 billion out of its government budget to a foundation to be set up by Seoul to provide support for the former comfort women.
In addition, both governments confirmed that “this issue is resolved finally and irreversibly” on the premise that the agreement is steadily implemented, and that they will “refrain from accusing or criticizing each other” over the issue in the international community.
It may be premature to hope that the agreement will settle the comfort women dispute once and for all, which the two governments have been unable to do since it surfaced as a major diplomatic sticking point in the early 1990s. Neither the 1993 statement by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono, which acknowledged the Japanese military’s involvement in the operation of the front-line brothel system, nor the Asian Women’s Fund set up in 1995 to offer “atonement money,” along with a letter of apology by Japan’s prime minister, for the surviving former comfort women, quelled the public outcry in South Korea over the issue — which was in turn hardened by attempts in Japan to downplay the nation’s responsibility for the women’s plight.
So the issue remained as a key source of diplomatic friction, along with the bitter Takeshima dispute, as relations between the two governments chilled to the point where their top leaders, Abe and President Park Geun-hye, failed to hold a one-on-one meeting since taking office in 2012 and 2013 respectively — an extraordinary situation that ended only in November. Mutual public distrust deepened as official ties soured. In a joint survey by a Japanese nonprofit organization and a South Korean think tank in May, 52 percent of Japanese held negative perceptions of South Korea, while 72 percent of South Koreans viewed Japan poorly. A separate poll suggested that South Koreans think relations with China are more important than their ties with Japan.
The agreement is a political compromise between the two governments, clinched at the end of the year that marked the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-South Korea relations in 1965 and the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, which ended its colonial rule of Korea. They were apparently under pressure from the United States, which has increasingly been concerned with the troubled relations between its mutual allies in East Asia. The accord did not say whether the “responsibilities” recognized by the Japanese government were the legal responsibilities that Seoul has been urging Tokyo to accept. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida denied the ¥1 billion that Japan contributes to the planned foundation will amount to compensation for the women — an issue that Tokyo asserted, and Seoul disagreed, had already been resolved when the two governments settled financial claims deriving from the colonial rule in their 1965 treaty.
But it is still significant that Tokyo and Seoul reached an agreement instead of highlighting their differences over the issue — as they have tended to do in recent years.
In exploring the deal, the Abe administration is reported to have put priority on settling the comfort women dispute with South Korea “finally and irreversibly.” But there are other troubles that haunt the bilateral ties, including the Takeshima territorial row. It is far from clear whether the agreement between the two governments will change the two countries’s public perception of each other for the better. In that sense, the accord may only be the beginning of a process that will test the two East Asian neighbors’ readiness to overcome differences and build mutual trust.