South Korea and Japan announced Dec. 28 that they have "finally and irreversibly" resolved the issue of "comfort women," who were forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers during Japan's campaigns in Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. In the agreement, the Japanese government issued an apology on behalf of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and promised a one-time 1 billion yen (approximately $8.3 million) government contribution to a South Korean government fund established to assist the remaining comfort women. The South Korean government, in return, agrees to no longer bring up the comfort women issue with the government of Japan or at international forums, including the United Nations.
Reactions to the agreement have been very mixed in both countries and beyond. In Japan and South Korea, some are voicing support and claiming this will remove a long-standing obstacle to better relations between Tokyo and Seoul. However, in Japan, some argue that the issue was settled back in 1965, when Seoul and Tokyo signed the Treaty on Basic Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea; by the 1993 statement by Japan's then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono acknowledging the role of Japanese military authorities in the establishment of the so-called comfort stations; or by the 1992 apology issued by then-Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa for the "indescribable hardships" imposed on the comfort women. In South Korea, some of the 46 surviving comfort women — along with activists and some former government officials — argue that the current apology from Abe is not clear enough, and that the South Korean government is rushing to "resolve" things just to have the issue put to rest on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 treaty. Beijing, which also demands additional apologies and reparations from Japan for actions in the 1930s and 1940s, gave a cautious assessment of the agreement but continued to warn of what it considers troubling changes in Japan's defense policies.
The comfort women issue fits squarely in the complex dynamic of relations in Northeast Asia, particularly between South Korea and Japan. From afar, it may seem inexplicable that two democracies — both with leading economies, both key U.S. defense allies in Northeast Asia — are still having difficulties with basic relations 50 years after establishing formal diplomatic ties and 70 years after the defeat of Japan at the end of World War II and the liberation of Korea from Japanese rule. After all, France and Germany got together and built the European Union despite two major European wars, and the United States is on the verge of supplying new arms to Vietnam, its erstwhile foe and still a Communist nation. But such animosities appear to run deeper in Asia, and competing factions within its various countries can exploit them.
In South Korea, part of the opposition to the latest settlement is its speed and apparent lack of consultation with the remaining comfort women. It is seen as a political move to lock down the legacy of the president. The objections to the settlement mirror the opposition to then-President Kim Dae Jung's meeting with North Korea's leader at the time, Kim Jong Il, in 2000. Then, it was the right criticizing the left; now, it is the other way around. The internal differences run even deeper: President Park Geun Hye is the daughter of former President Park Chung Hee, considered by many to be the founder of modern, industrial South Korea. But some remember the elder Park as a right-wing military officer who took power in a coup, and perhaps worse was accused of being a collaborator, having served in Japan's Manchukuo Army. Any move by current President Park to ease relations with Japan is quickly tainted with the accusations of continuing collaboration.
In Japan, internal politics also play into the interpretation of the comfort women issue and of Japan's role in East Asia and beyond. Some argue that Japan has more than paid for its actions leading up to and through World War II, that Japan has been punished far beyond any Western nation, and that Japan's continued acquiescence to demands for reparations and apologies for past actions are not only unfair, but intended to undermine Japan's rightful place in the region and beyond. Japan's military "normalization" process has been a case study in internal politics and in the evolution of political sentiment toward Japan's time of remorse and its rightful future role.
But there is another dynamic not directly rooted in Japan's regional expansion in the 1930s and 1940s (or even its invasion of continental Asia in the late 1500s). That is the dynamic of space — of geography. Japan is an island nation with few natural resources and minimal arable land. South Korea is in essentially the same position, at least so long as North Korea acts as a barrier to land connections to the continent. Both countries compete in the same markets with the same products, import the same raw materials and are effectively located in the same place. This makes the two, at least in recent history, highly competitive with one another. From shipbuilding to semiconductors to automobiles, South Korea has eaten away at Japan's international economic lead. But South Korea also sits at the crossroads between Japan and China, the bridge and gate between two great regional powers — one a continental giant, the other a maritime powerhouse. Korea is the proverbial minnow between two great whales, and despite its economic climb, it remains the weakest of the three countries economically, militarily and in basic size.
South Korean imperatives drive the country in two competing directions: isolationism and open friendship with its neighbors. The old Hermit Kingdom moniker has been around far longer than the Kim regime in Pyongyang, because Korea sought to isolate itself from competing Japanese and Chinese interests and from expanding Western influence. Korea has also sought to play the interests of its two neighbors off each another, or sought to ensure smooth relations with both, in hopes that it would not fall victim to either. Finally, Korea has sought a third power to ensure its own independence — even if at a cost of dependence on a distant power. Although the current government may be seeking to follow the second path — better relations with both neighbors — a sizable portion of the population, as well as the political opposition, may prefer the drive toward the more indigenous security position promoted by former presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun. For South Korea, there are few good options, especially now that China and Japan are both becoming more assertive and Seoul finds itself once again in the middle.
It is into these deeper lines — geography, history and culture — that the comfort women resolution enters. It is unlikely that this is "finally and irreversibly" the end of the issue. There are too many layers to unwrap — far more than were mentioned in this brief essay. What the current attempt at a resolution illustrates is the drive by the Park administration to find a proper balance between Japan and China, to position South Korea in a place where neither Beijing nor Tokyo sees Seoul as a liability and both seek to court the Koreans. It is a risky game — one the Koreans played (unsuccessfully) at the turn of the 20th century. With China emerging into Japan's maritime domain, Tokyo is reawakening and expanding back into Archipelagic Asia, and Korea once again is facing a major regional upheaval. It is a different world now than it was a hundred years ago, but Korea remains where it has long been: on the very edge of continental China, sticking precariously out into the maritime reach of Japan.