Japan, South Korea Reach Historic Agreement on ‘Comfort Women’

On Monday, Japan and South Korea, in parallel statements of their foreign ministers, agreed to a “final and irreversible” settlement of the so-called “comfort women” issue. 

 During Japan’s colonization of Korea last century, Korean females had been forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers in military-run brothels. 

 Pursuant to the deal, Tokyo agreed to pay 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) into a South Korean fund for the 46 surviving comfort women. More important, Japan’s foreign minister, while in Seoul, delivered the apology of his country’s prime minister. Fumio Kishida said Shinzo Abe “expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” 

 The Japan-South Korea arrangement, in the works for months, represented an act of courage for Abe but especially for his South Korean counterpart, President Park Geun-hye. It was also a triumph for American diplomacy. Washington in recent years had been trying to stop a downward spiral in relations between Tokyo and Seoul.

The US has military alliances with both Japan and South Korea, but the two countries are not allied to each other. For years, they were barely on speaking terms. In fact, Ms. Park had refused to even meet with Abe for more than three years. When she finally agreed to a summit, which took place November 2, she treated him as rudely as possible under the circumstances. 

Most commentary this week has focused on Japan needing an agreement with South Korea, and it is true that Tokyo wanted acceptance in the region and another ally in its struggle with China. In reality, however, Seoul had more urgent—and more fundamental—reasons to come to terms. 

Most important, South Koreans realized that they needed Japan more than the other way around. Any causal glance at a map makes it clear that the North Koreans—especially if they had Chinese help—could overrun the entire Korean peninsula well before American reinforcements could arrive if Tokyo prohibited the use of American bases in Japan for the defense of South Korea. South Korea, in short, is extremely hard to defend without Tokyo’s active cooperation.

And the South Koreans, because their government has indulged the widespread hatred of the Japanese in society, have put the security of their country at risk. Seoul, for instance, refused to sign an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan in June 2012, pulling out at the last moment. And Japan and South Korea have yet to integrate their air defenses as they should have done by now.

Moreover, Seoul’s unseemly courting of China in recent years created concern in Washington that it was acting inconsistently with its alliance responsibilities. Ms. Park had to do something to tilt back, and resolving the comfort women issue, which she had exacerbated earlier in her term, was an obvious thing to do.

Elite opinion in Seoul—and even among the South Korean electorate as a whole

—was starting to see the need to end a spat that was mostly hurting South Korea, and in any event Park’s pro-Beijing policies were starting to come apart anyway.As Satoshi Amako at Waseda University in Tokyo noted, South Korea was looking to China to restart growth and help rein in North Korea. Now that the Chinese economy is slowing and Beijing’s ties with Pyongyang are obviously deteriorating, China appears much less useful to the South Koreans.

Park deserves credit for Monday’s agreement, and now her government and Japan have the opportunity to build a strong relationship. More important from her perspective, she has sponsored an agreement that allows her country to reverse a dangerous course. She did not create anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea, but she stoked it. Now it is good that she is undoing damage she helped create.

Some elements of South Korean society have already denounced the deal, and, given Japan’s horrific crimes against the Korean people, that is understandable. Yet South Koreans can continue to dwell on the injustice of the past or choose to defend their country from the threats of the present. They cannot do both.



Photo: Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cheong Wa Dae

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