Historic South Korean-Japanese Deal on “Comfort Women”
By Emily Lim
70 years after the end of World War II, Japan and Korea finally have reached an agreement on one key disputed issue from the conflict: South Korean women, euphemistically called ‘comfort women’, who were sex slaves to Japanese soldiers during the war. As a result of continued efforts by South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se and his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, South Korea now considers the matter ‘finally and irreversibly’ resolved by the agreement, which was signed in Seoul in late Dec. 2015.
Under the agreement, the Japanese government has agreed to pay 1 billion yen (USD 8.3 million) to fund psychological and mental services for the 46 living elderly “comfort women”, many of whom are now in their nineties. Both Kishida and Abe made public apologies over the sexual enslavement of South Korean women, with Abe expressing his "most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences" as sex slaves during the war. Japanese and South Korean representatives agreed to refrain from criticizing each other on the issue in the international community. In return, South Korea will look into removing a statue of a teenage girl, which symbolizes South Korean sex slaves, erected outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2011 by South Korean activists.
Japan’s unwillingness to admit responsibility for war crimes committed during the Second World War has been a thorn in its relations with its East Asian neighbors, particularly China and South Korea, for decades since the end of the war. In Dec. 2013, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came under international condemnation for visiting Yasukuni, a shrine honoring Japan’s war dead which includes high-profile war criminals. Particularly contended by its East Asian neighbors is the fact that Japan’s school curriculums rarely feature atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war. Furthermore, the fact that Japan invaded and occupied Korea for three decades during the 20th century remains fresh in the minds of South Koreans.
Although both Prime Ministers of Japan and South Korea, Park and Abe, have expressed hope for a 'new era'of mutual trust in bilateral relations, what implications does this agreement really have for relations in the Asia-Pacific region?
Although diplomatic ties between South Korea and Japan were normalized in 1965 with the Treaty on Basic Relations, with Japan agreeing to give $800 million in economic aid to South Korea, the fact that the majority of 200,000 sex slaves for Japanese soldiers were South Korean remains a deep scar in relations. This treaty itself is controversial: although the Japanese government considered the treaty final in resolving damages inflicted upon Korea during the colonial period and World War II, many South Koreans feel that the agreement is an inadequate resolution. Particularly unresolved was the issue of addressing Japanese atrocities committed during the war, the most potent of which was the sexual enslavement of Korean women.
Now that an agreement on the matter has been reached, some activists in South Korea regard the agreement as too little, too late. Some survivors of sexual enslavement have criticized the agreement for treating the issue more as a political dispute rather than a humanitarian one, and have called for Japan to face international war crime laws and pay legal reparations. Activists claim that Japan is blame-dodging, and point towards the fact that sex slaves are not included in Japanese school textbooks. In fact, Kishida later told the local press in a closed-door meeting that they money was not compensation, but was instead a ‘project to relieve emotional scars,’suggesting that Japan is downplaying its responsibility rather than admitting guilt.
With the resolution of the dispute regarding war-time sex slaves, which had halted bilateral summit talks since 2012, the respective governments can now look forward to key geopolitical, economic, and diplomatic issues in East Asia’s international relations. Japan and South Korea, both allies of the United States, can now work trilaterally to denuclearize North Korea. Some analysts have also suggested that Japan and South Korea may be able to act as counterweights to China’s growing political and security challenge in East Asia, and that there is the possibility that South Korea could be persuaded to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Although the scars of history between Japan and its East Asian neighbors runs deep, the new agreement has lessened South Korea discontent towards the Japanese that has persisted in the past 50 years following the signing of the 1965 treaty. The December 2015 agreement heralds an era of renewed bilateral negotiations between Japan and South Korea, which comes at a time crucial for the national security interests of East Asian countries.