A 2015 deal between South Korea and Japan is at the center of a heated controversy and the cooling of relations between these two key U.S. allies. The agreement that officially and “irreversibly” resolved the conflict over the thousands of women and girls forced to work in brothels as “comfort women” during the Second World War has now been rejected by the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
After reviewing a report from an investigative panel, Moon released a statement saying in part, “The agreement cannot solve the comfort women issue.” Terming it a political agreement he added that “it excludes victims and the public.” Park Soo-hyun, a spokesman for the South Korean presidency, would not call the agreement “null and void,” adding that the government would present its “final position.”
The investigative panel reassessed the agreement after listening to comfort women testimonies and reviewing the long-term effects they have suffered. The comfort women stories convinced them that the agreement does not adequately address the needs of the victims.
Under the terms of the deal, Japan officially apologized to the South Korean comfort women and provided 1 Billion yen, or approximately $9 million, for their care. The panel concluded that the prior South Korean administration rushed the agreement and that sufficient time was not given to hearing the victims’ concerns or to addressing their needs.
The Korean comfort women issue was at the heart of the removal of Moon’s conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye who was blamed for not fully including input from the victims in the settlement terms. Moon’s election campaign to replace Park included a promise to renegotiate the South Korean comfort women settlement.
The Japanese foreign ministry communicated through diplomatic channels that its position on the agreement is firm. According to Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, efforts to modify the agreement would make it “unacceptable,” and that relations between the two countries could become “unmanageable.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confirmed his country’s stance saying in an interview with Japan’s Nikkei business daily that the agreement “will not be changed by even one millimeter.”
Roh Kyu-deok, a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman commented that “regardless of the Japanese government’s stance, we take the investigation results seriously and humbly.” According to Roh, in response to the investigative panel’s analysis, South Korea will develop recommendations to help the victims “regain honor and heal the wounds in their hearts.”
The history of the two countries makes resolution of their differences difficult at times. Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to the end of World War II left a legacy of distrust among South Koreans. Regional security needs along with trade and economic necessity have brought the two countries closer, but the issue of Korean comfort women forced to work in brothels remains politically charged and highly sensitive in South Korea. In Japan, negotiations on the issue are made difficult by a small but vocal group of ultraconservatives who deny that it ever happened or who claim that the women worked voluntarily.
Both countries are important U.S. allies and partners in regional security efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. The U.S. State Department emphasized the need for a “strong relationship” between South Korea and Japan with Spokesman Michael Cavey adding, “We have long encouraged all parties to work together and approach this sensitive issue in a way that will promote healing, reconciliation and mutual trust.”
Despite their differences on the settlement, President Moon and Prime Minister Abe have both promised to work toward improved future relations and cooperation between their countries, leaving open the possibility of renegotiation and a successful resolution of the issue.