The cycle of negativity surrounding Japan-South Korea relations since the Abe-Park era began in early 2013 has at times eclipsed North Korea as a source of angst among observers of Northeast Asia. Even the modest improvements that accompanied commemorations of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic normalization in June 2015 were tinged by frustration over the two governments’ failure to move forward on the comfort women issue. The chief problem was the lack of acknowledgement of Japanese responsibility for the coercion of girls and women to provide sexual services to the military in imperial Japan, and this disagreement extended to other historical issues that hung over the relationship.
It was especially surprising, then, that Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and President Park Geun-hye cut a deal to resolve the comfort women issue. The agreement reached the end of 2015 followed more than a dozen rounds of consultations between the two governments, a process that unfolded under intense media scrutiny and ever-growing suspicion of the other side’s intentions. Park made resolution of the problem a condition of the “re-normalization” of relations with Japan, while Abe and many of his supporters appeared increasingly frustrated and fatigued by the inability of the two sides to move past this and other historical issues.