The agreement, in which Japan made an apology and promised an $8.3 million payment, was intended to remove one of the most intractable logjams in relations between South Korea and Japan, both crucial allies to the United States. The so-called comfort women have been the most painful legacy of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, which lasted from 1910 until Japan’s World War II defeat in 1945.
The Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers, announcing the agreement in Seoul, said each side considered it a “final and irrevocable resolution” of the issue.
The deal won praise from the governing party of President Park Geun-hye of South Korea but was immediately criticized as insufficient by some of the surviving former sex slaves as well as opposition politicians in South Korea, where anti-Japanese sentiments run deep.
This is really good news, and a big win for the Obama administration, which has been pushing Tokyo and Seoul to put this issue behind them. Finances turned out to be the smallest part of the problem: Japan’s offer of one billion yen a year is less than $10 million. The bigger obstacles were around tangled questions of honor and law: Japan doesn’t want to open the door to endless litigation and large claims for other issues related to the conduct of Japanese forces and companies during the war. South Korea, for its part, wants evidence of sincere repentance for horrific war crimes and some kind of reckoning not only for the war but for a cruel colonial occupation up until the war.
And not all of the obstacles have been completely resolved. As the quote above notes, the surviving women themselves are split on the issue, and reactions from South Korean NGOs associated with the surviving comfort women were harshly negative. Everything now depends on the ability of Korean government to sell the deal at home. It won’t be easy and the agreement may still fall apart if South Korean public opinion revolts.
Better relations between key U.S. allies is a major goal, and both negotiators and the Obama administration deserve congratulation. Moreover, the deal will be causing some unhappiness in Beijing. But this story isn’t over. If the agreement fails to win over the South Korean public, the result could be deeper estrangement between the two countries. The Japanese will resent Korea and Korean politicians will fear making any further moves toward Japan.