In December 2015, South Korea agreed to “finally and irreversibly” settle its dispute with Japan regarding comfort women if Japan provided 1 billion yen ($8.75 million) to a fund for the surviving women and delivered an apology expressing “deep responsibility.”
Although 34 of the 46 surviving comfort women have accepted the proposed compensation and apology as sufficient, the agreement has not gone through. Recently, Japan recalled its ambassador to South Korea and consul-general in Busan after activists placed a statue of a girl in traditional Korean dress outside the Japanese consulate in the city. Coupled with the impeachment of South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye and the uncertain future of South Korean political leadership, the settlement proceedings have come to a standstill.
Despite the significant obstacles, it remains critical that Japan and South Korea successfully and definitively resolve the comfort women issue and establish formal bilateral military relations. This would allow the two countries to jointly focus on the more pressing regional matters at hand, such as the shared threat from North Korea.
The comfort women issue originated in the early 20th century when Japan occupied much of East and Southeast Asia. Comfort women were women and girls in occupied territories who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army. Estimates of the number of comfort women range between 50,000 and 200,000, many of them Korean.
Although there are revisionists who claim there were no sex slaves during the Japanese occupation, the Japanese government has previously provided compensation and apologies on several occasions. According to official South Korean documents declassified in January 2005, South Korea had agreed to not demand any more compensation after receiving $800 million in aid and loans as part of the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea. In 1995, Japan established the Asian Women’s Fund to provide compensation to comfort women. However, it was criticized by some as a way for the Japanese government to avoid making formal reparations as the money came from private donations.
Relations between South Korea and Japan have improved drastically since the end of World War II. However, the relationship has also suffered setbacks as memories of the Japanese occupation and the unresolved issue of comfort women often surface in South Korean politics. The deal announced in December 2015 would be a formal agreement that would ultimately settle the issue and provide closure for the surviving comfort women. In addition, with such a formal agreement, South Korea would be unlikely to demand further compensation or apology in the future.
Unfortunately, little progress may be forthcoming until either President Park is reinstated or a new president is elected, which may not occur until the summer of 2017. It is also unclear when Japan will return its ambassador and consul-general to Seoul and Busan, respectively.
Still, the recent controversy over the statue in Busan has not significantly interrupted Japan-South Korea relations. Both countries, along with the United States, participated in a missile defense exercise in January 2017 in anticipation of North Korean provocations. In addition to the shared threat of North Korea, both Japan and South Korea face a China that continues to flex its muscles by sending its military aircraft and ships further from the mainland. Early this year, South Korea and Japan independently scrambled their fighter jets in response to Chinese bombers encroaching into their airspace.
With the acceleration in North Korean weapons testing and the increasing reach of China’s military presence in the region, South Korea and Japan must deepen their level of cooperation, particularly in the realm of regional security. The return of Japan’s ambassador and consul-general to South Korea, as well as a formal agreement to settle the comfort women issue, would be a step in the right direction to enhancing cooperation and trust between the two countries. Indeed, improved diplomatic relations could act as jumping off point for expanded cooperation in the realm of security.
The disagreement over proper compensation for comfort women has plagued the relationship between South Korea and Japan for the better part of the past one hundred years. The realization of the proposed December 2015 settlement would mark a significant improvement in diplomatic relations that could pave the way for the two countries to establish a united front against regional security concerns. Progress on bilateral relations would allow South Korea and Japan to jointly focus attention on shared external threats, as opposed to the ongoing dispute surrounding comfort women.
Still, moving past historical grievances does not mean forgetting the difficult past surrounding comfort women. And while compensation and apology will not nullify the suffering of comfort women, both would provide closure that would allow the two leading democratic countries in the Asia-Pacific to continue to work together to provide peace and security throughout the region.
Ki Suh Jung is an officer in the US Navy, deployed in the Pacific. He earned his BA in Economics and Government from Dartmouth College in 2011. Ki Suh is an Asia-Pacific Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).