Japan has long been viewed as a peaceful, prosperous island chain in the Pacific, generally minding its own business. This was not always the case, as history shows, but Japan has worked hard to rehabilitate its image in the decades since World War II. One such example is the Asian country’s continued commitment to atone for its involvement in the issue of Korean comfort women.
In the period from 1910 until the American occupation of Japan at the end of World War II, the country aggressively colonized parts of Asia, specifically the Korean peninsula that is now divided between the countries of North and South Korea. The comfort women were part of an orchestrated effort by the Japanese military to provide its troops with access to brothels. The comfort women stories are heartbreaking, and, for themselves and their families, the policy promulgated by the Japanese Empire was an irreparable tragedy.
The comfort women testimonies to these wartime atrocities have long been a source of discomfort and anger for the people of South Korea. South Korean comfort women specifically, the North is too diplomatically isolated to be involved, are a source of friction between two of Asia’s most prosperous economies to this day.
In 2015, the leaders of South Korea and Japan met to finalize a deal that many hoped would put the issue of Korean comfort women to rest permanently. At the time, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe acknowledged the atrocities and apologized on behalf of all of Japan. His South Korean counterpart, then President Park Geun-Hye, accepted the apology and agreed that the issue would be put to rest, allowing the countries to forge a new friendship, particularly as a united bulwark against North Korea’s growing nuclear threat and China's economic might.
This was all upended when President Geun-Hye was impeached. His successor, President Moon Jae-In, has not shown the same commitment to the rapprochement over the comfort women issue. At the same time, South Korea appears to be strengthening ties to its neighbor China. Moon’s recent visit to Beijing saw a renewed and vocal focus on Japan’s wartime crimes. Whether this was done simply as show, an attempt to curry favor with the Chinese, long a rival of Japan, or means something more is hard to determine, but the Japanese are watching the developments with interest.
To make matters more complicated, the entire agreement regarding the issue of the brothels is now under review by a South Korean task force, under the leadership of its Foreign Ministry. The group will decide by the end of 2018 whether to accept the agreement as it stands or to get rid of it all together. The decision would fall just as Japan is planning to host the next round of trilateral summits between Japan, South Korea, and China, in early January 2019.
Japan’s foreign minister Taro Kono has restated the country’s commitment to the agreement and remains hopeful that South Korea will as well. South Korea’s own foreign minister Kang Kyung-What met with Kono in recent weeks, a reminder perhaps to Japan that despite continued cooperation with China, South Korea still values its relationship with the Japanese. Following these most recent talks between South Korea and Japan, the two foreign ministers echoed their continued partnership to defuse the nuclear situation in North Korea and a mutual agreement to continue talks, whether with China or not.Japan Is Pushing For South Korea To Honor The 2015 Comfort Women Deal