The legacy of the South Korean comfort women has garnered some attention in recent years, particularly after Seoul and Tokyo reached an amicable agreement in 2015, which was intended to put the matter behind the two countries once and for all. However, a division of opinion remained among the people of both Japan and South Korea. Now, despite some setbacks, they are working closely to find a positive resolution to the decades-long dispute.
The longstanding source of contention between Japan and South Korea arises from the Japanese Imperial Army’s use of ‘comfort stations,’ or brothels, staffed by South Korean women before and during WWII. Korean Comfort women stories about being abducted from their homes have been around since the war, but their testimonies were popularized in 2013, preceding the decision by both countries to reach a bilateral agreement sealing the matter.
Recognizing the painful experiences outlined in comfort women testimonies, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered his “most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent” the ordeal. In addition, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida gave a formal statement acknowledging the involvement of the Japanese Imperial Army as well as the dishonor to the women of South Korea.
As part of the 2015 ‘comfort women’ agreement, Japan contributed the equivalent of nearly $9 million to a South Korean foundation set up to provide support for the former comfort women. The two countries also agreed to work together as allies and develop a warmer bilateral relationship moving forward, which has for the most part succeeded.
However, there has been a delay in implementation while the new South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, reviews the deal, citing concerns from former comfort women, as well as the general public, that the agreement doesn’t go far enough. On the other hand, many South Koreans are eager to overcome their country’s differences with Japan so that both can enjoy the benefits of a stronger partnership.
One of the other requirements of the agreement involved the removal of the comfort woman memorial statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. At the time of the signing, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se was optimistic about the agreement, and signaled his intention to remove the comfort women statue in front of the Japanese embassy.
The statues, which Japan fears may drive a diplomatic wedge between Tokyo and Seoul, have been placed in South Korea, the U.S., and elsewhere by an advocacy group, and the one in front of the embassy still stands today.
The agreement, which has already been signed by representatives of both Japan and South Korea, also has the backing of United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres, who “supports and welcomes it,” according to The Japan Times. Guterres discussed the deal with Abe during the G7 summit in May.
Besides resolving the comfort women dispute, Japanese officials, including Prime Minister Abe, say it is important to honor the agreement to create greater stability in the region. Strong diplomatic ties will also be instrumental when facing challenges, like the growing threat of a nuclear North Korea.
However, some protesters in Japan are angry that the government has taken any responsibility for dishonoring South Korean women, refusing to believe the Imperial army committed any of the alleged war crimes.
In the end, although there is some dissent in each of the two countries, Japan and South Korea have both expressed their desire to see the matter settled, both to resolve an uncomfortable issue as well as to strengthen their diplomatic and political relationship, and both sides are still hoping for a positive resolution.