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Japan And South Korea Heal Historical Wounds – Analysis


Six decades since the end of World War II and despite several changes in world politics and also in the Northeast Asia, the issue of “comfort women” continued to haunt Japan’s relations with its neighbour, South Korea. The Korean people are unable to forget the atrocities committed by the Japanese military during the long colonial rule from 1910-1945 over the entire Korean peninsula. The issue is too emotive in South Korea. In particular, what hurts the Korean people most is that many Korean women, a euphemistic expression for sex slaves called as “comfort women” or “ianfu” as the Japanese called them, were forced to work as prostitutes by Japan’s Imperial armed forces during World War II. Japan refused to pay individual compensation for the wrongs committed.

This unresolved issue, an unfortunate wartime aberration, was finally buried to the dustbin of history, when the foreign ministers of both Japan and South Korea announced an agreement on 28 December 2015 during Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to Seoul.1 To further assuage the feeling and applying balm of sort, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo telephoned President Park Geun-hye and offered Japan’s “sincere apology and remorse from the bottom of his heart” over the issue. With this, a new era seemed to have dawned in relations between the two countries. Though Japanese leaders had offered apology in the past, the South Koreans always felt the lack of sincerity, as perceptions are hard to change. This time Abe offered apology to the former “comfort women” and committed his government to finance a 1 billion yen (US$ 8.3 million) aid fund for the aging survivors to be set up by South Korea. Kishida and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se resolved that both the governments will confirm that “the comfort women issue will be settled in a final and irreversible manner” so long as Japan faithfully follows through on its promises.

This was a landmark agreement.2 Kishida said, “it’s not compensation. It’s a project to recover the honour and dignity of all comfort women and to heal their emotional wounds”. Kishida further termed the agreement as “historic” and “ground-breaking achievement”. Kishida was hopeful that the deal will not only benefit Japan and South Korea but also “largely contribute to the region’s peace and stability”. It is hoped that following the agreement, relations between both the countries would develop into “a future-oriented new era”.

The comfort women issue was the biggest source of diplomatic friction between Japan and South Korea and animosities continued to rise since the inauguration of Abe to office in 2012. As the two countries marked the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties, Park observed that the agreement removes “the biggest obstacle to efforts to improve bilateral tie”.

According to historians, up to 200,000 females, mostly Korean, were forced into sexual slavery at frontline Japanese brothels during the war. Although a total of 234 former “comfort women” were registered with the South Korean government, only 63 as of December 2011 were alive and most are in their 80s and 90s; 16 died in 2010. Since 1992, they have joined in weekly protests in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul since 1992. At the time of the December 2015 deal, only 46 are surviving. Nine died in 2015 itself. The 1,000th weekly protest was held on December 14, 2011. A bronze statue depicting a young “comfort woman” clad in traditional Korean clothes symbolizing the victims was installed near the Japanese embassy in December 2011, prompting embassy officials to express their concern regarding its presence to the South Korean government officials and called for its removal. The statue, raised with the help of donations worth approximately $32,000, had become a permanent protest site. When former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak visited Japan on 18 December 2011, then Prime Minister of Japan Noda Yoshihiko had told him that it was “regrettable” and asked him “to remove the statue immediately”. Seoul had refused.3 This time after the agreement was reached, Japan now wants South Korea to remove the statue. Though Yun did not commit, he promised to talk on the matter with the organizations involved, in an apparent reference to the citizens’ group. For Japan, relocating the statue is a priority as it is seen as an embarrassing eyesore and an insult to Japan. Earlier, the South Korean foreign ministry had said that the statue was erected by civilians and the government had no say over its location.

Though the acrimonious relations continued for some time, what were the drivers for this sudden U-turn in mending ties? The first impression to any analyst appear to be, being important allies of the US, the Obama administration seemed to have stepped up pressure on its key Asian allies to mend ties in the face of an increasingly assertive China and nuclear-armed North Korea. The two allies of the US together host about 80,000 US troops for the security of the Northeast Asian region. Both are also members of the now-stalled six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in return of aid. In view of this, it was always in the interests of Washington that its two key allies maintain better relations.

A joint Abe-Park joint statement brokered by the US may be needed, possibly in the US, to make the deal irreversible. This is because South Korea has demanded that Japan make an official apology and offer reparations with recognition of legal responsibility. Japan has maintained that the issue was legally settled under a 1965 basic treaty with South Korea and an attached agreement, which states issues regarding property and claims between the two countries are “settled completely and finally.” South Korea maintained that the ‘comfort women’ issue was not covered by the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea because their use was an inhumane, illicit act.4

This could be tricky because Japan has no plans to acknowledge legal responsibility and pay reparations or government compensation. Instead, it is advocating the formation of the government-backed fund from a humanitarian perspective.
Earlier, Japan had set up an Asian Women’s Fund at Tokyo’s initiative in 1995, which was a pool of private donations.5 It lasted through 2007. The government allocated ¥15 million in fiscal 2015 to the program, which finances periodic visits to the victims’ homes and provides medical and other welfare assistance. Given this background, the name of the new fund could become a problematic issue as well. While Tokyo favours the word “atonement,” Seoul prefers “compensation.”

According to Lee Won-deok, director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, “an act by a government using the state budget can be interpreted as an act accompanied by legal responsibility”. According to him, “if the money is not clearly labeled as reparations, the Japanese government can explain to rightists in the country that it was providing humanitarian assistance to the victims because there was a shortcoming after the 1965 settlement”. “A gray area can be created to allow Seoul and Tokyo to interpret the measure the way each needs”, he says.

There are several interpretations and opinions on the settlement that is reached. One view is that the conditions are not good for South Korea as it does not acknowledge the existence and sufferings of the sex slaves and take proper responsibility. Though South Korea gets just the money, this view holds that Japan will continue to deny and whitewash its history. Those who hold this view suspect that Japan will continue to insult these women, because the Japanese kids are not taught of these sex slaves. The proponents of this view say that South Korea should have attached two conditions for Japan: include the world wide verified information of these women into the textbooks, and enforce their usage nationwide, and never again any government official to express any denial or downplay of these women. In the lack of these two conditions, those hold this view fear that Japanese officials will again visit the Yasukuni Shrine, and some mayor will deny the existence of the sex slaves. As long as the Japanese are not taught of this, this issue will not be resolved, they fear.

Is this the final settlement then? The truism is that revisionism by politicians in Japan is unlikely to stop in a free Japan, though the Kono statement6 might be rendered irrelevant. Similarly, the anti-Japanese sentiment by some in Korea is unlikely to go away so soon, though there seems to be consensus, as showed by polls, that most Koreans want to settle this issue and move on in view of the changing dynamics of geopolitical circumstances.

Earlier, Lee was pursuing the ‘comfort women’ issue as a political strategy to continue remaining in power as he was losing grip in the administration. During his visit to Japan in December 2011, he addressed the Korean Residents Union in Osaka, where he said “if Japan resolves the issue while the former ‘comfort women’ are still alive, the resolution will be extremely useful for the two countries to establish future-oriented relations.” Since then, the South Korean government had taken the position that if Japan could not resolve this issue, Japan would be responsible for it remaining unresolved for all times to come. Even a South Korean constitutional court exhorted the government in August 2011 to negotiate with Japan on the issue of individual persons’ rights to claim compensation and said inaction of the government was unconstitutional because it violated the human rights of the “comfort women”. Japan claimed to have made all efforts to investigate the past documents and testimonies since 1991 and published a report detailing these. The report claims that no evidence was found that the Japanese army forcibly seized women, though Japanese army’s engagement could not be denied.

Successive Japanese governments had repeated Japan’s often-stated position that the issue was resolved in 1965 when the two countries normalized their diplomatic relations. Japan argued that in that agreement, the issue of rights of compensation was included and a lump sum of money paid to South Korea. Even former Prime Minister Noda had said that Japan’s legal stance was “already decided” and the issue been “settled”.

Before the December 28 agreement, South Korea had taken up the issue at the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs) of the UN General Assembly in New York on October 11, 2011, though Japan informally asked Seoul not to do so. While South Korea did not name Japan in its initial speech, it criticized Japan explicitly following Japan’s rebuttal.

During a visit to Seoul in early October 2011, then Japan’s ruling party policy chief Maehara Seiji suggested to Kim Sung-hwan, South Korea’s minister of foreign affairs and trade, that Japan may come up with a compromise regarding Seoul’s demand for compensation for the Korean sex slaves on humanitarian grounds, while categorically repeating Japan’s official stance that the issue had been settled and that Japanese government’s view remained unchanged. Though at times, Japan showed signs of repentance, South Korea always felt that repentance without appropriate actions would not soothe the hurt feelings of the surviving “comfort women”. Even the Kono statement was not enough from the South Korean perspective.

Japan has a long standing abduction issue with North Korea when some Japanese nationals were abducted by North Korean spy agencies in the 1970s. Abe has made a commitment to the families of the abductees that his government shall persevere to resolve the issue. The Abe government has even made efforts to reach out directly to Pyongyang by sending special emissary to negotiate risking to jeopardizing the stalled six party talks from resumption. Tokyo too needs Seoul’s cooperation in resolving this issue with Pyongyang. The territorial dispute over the issue Takeshima islets, which the Koreans call as Dokdo also remain unresolved. Following the resolution of the comfort women issue, hopes could be raised next that talks on the territorial dispute could make some progress.

How did Kishida succeed in striking the deal with Seoul? Kishida was firmly backed by Abe to address the comfort women issue. Abe reportedly told Kishida: “I’ll take responsibility. I want you to go to South Korea by the end of this year to negotiate [over the issue].” Even Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Japan’s commitment to accelerate talks to reach a deal over the issue as early as possible. In fact, both the governments had been continuing negotiations over the issue behind the scenes since the spring of 2015. The talks were led by Shotaro Yachi, secretary general of the National Security Secretariat and Abe’s close aide, and Lee Byung Kee, presidential chief of staff and former ambassador to Japan, close to South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Yachi and Lee kept contact with each other despite chilling of ties and eyed on the possibility that the situation would change. The summit meeting between Abe and Park on 2 November 2015 in Seoul, the first in more than three years, proved to be the turning point when the two leaders agreed to aim to strike a deal on the issue as early as possible. Before this, Park had refused to meet Abe until Japan offered proper apologies for comfort women.

In 2014 when bilateral ties had chilled, a journalist of The Sankei Shimbun posted in Seoul was debarred from leaving Seoul as he was accused of defaming Park in an article. Following Abe-Park summit meeting, the Korean court acquitted the former Seoul bureau chief. Also the South Korean Constitutional Court did not render a judgment on whether the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on the Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea was unconstitutional. Such conciliatory moves paved smooth progress towards reconciliation between the two countries and were behind the deal. The behind the scene and frequent talks between Yachi and Lee also helped.

China’s reaction

How did China react to the Japan-South Korea deal? As expected, China cautiously welcomed the landmark deal. As with South Korea, Japan’s relations with China also come under historical clouds and China often accuses Japan for failing to atone for the sufferings it caused before and during World War II. Therefore, China hopes that the Japan-South Korea deal will be “conducive to this region’s stability and development.7 Like with the Koreans, the Imperial Japanese Army had set up “comfort stations” in various parts of China and other parts of Asia with the initial aim of preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among officers and reducing sex crimes in occupied areas. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang urged Japan to “reflect on its history of aggression, take responsible behavior and properly handle relevant issues”.

However, unlike South Korea, China did not rack up the women’s issues until recently. Taking advantage of the deteriorating ties between Japan and South Korea and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s disrespect towards Beijing, President Xi Jinping started deepening ties with South Korea. The issue of suffering of women by the hands of the Japanese during the War started getting the spotlight. Since coming to power three years ago, Xi not only first visited South Korea breaking the practice of visiting first Pyongyang, he started using historical issues as diplomatic cards against Japan. In fact, to demonstrate China’s solidarity with Seoul, China opened its first museum dedicated to former comfort women in Nanjing in early December 2015, sensing that Tokyo and Seoul are closing in on a possible deal on the issue. In 2014, China nominated materials related to women and the Nanking Massacre for UNESCO listing. While UNESCO included documents on the 1937 massacre in the city Nanking (now called Nanjing), id did not include materials regarding comfort women to its list.

What does it mean to the future Japan-South Korea relations? The deal that included Abe’s apology and an $8.3 million fund may tame a decades-long conflict but can this guarantee the change in perception? Can Abe’s acknowledgement of the Imperial Army’s “involvement” in organizing the comfort women system marking a departure from his previous reluctance to indict the Imperial Army? Notwithstanding the deal, real reconciliation in mind shall surely take some more time or until the shadow of history goes away.

By striking the deal with South Korea, Abe has only added now more responsibilities to himself on how to change his image of being a nationalist or at least being perceived to be so. His attempts to expand Japan’s military powers after decades of pacifism have already caused ripples in the neighborhood, notwithstanding China’s belligerence and assertiveness. While Japan’s choice of course could be reassuring to some of the region’s smaller powers such as Vietnam and the Philippines in view of the perceived China threat, there also lurks fear about Japan’s decision to enhance its military power and relaxation of arms exports because of past history. However, the dragon in the room is seen as a bigger threat than a tamed Japan, whose behavior in the post-War years does not show any sign of returning to old militaristic strategy, just that Japanese new strategy is a reaction to a belligerent China. That could be reassuring to the rest of Asia. The growing bonhomie between India and Japan, Japan and Australia, Japan and Vietnam and the rest of ASEAN region, and blessed by Washington should be seen from that perspective.

No wonder, therefore, both Abe and Park exulted optimism following the deal. While Abe said the deal opens up a new era in Japan-South Korea ties, Park remarked that both the countries have “fulfilled the responsibility of the generation living now”.8 He hoped the deal could trigger for both the countries to cooperate and open a new era. South Korea’s Foreign Minister promised the government to consider removing a bronze statue of a comfort woman placed outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Jin Chang Soo, director of Japan Studies at Seoul’s Sejong Institute, said “the worst if over between the two countries”.9

The next logical step for both the countries could be to look to means how to boost bilateral trade and work together with the US to reshape the geopolitical order of the region. The US shall be pleased with the reconciliation process between its two key allies in the light of China’s expanding activity in the contested waters of the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear program. It may be recalled, in 2014, the US signed a pact to serve as a go-between for military information between Japan and South Korea, after they were unable to reach an agreement to share information directly.

Though things look good, there are few caveats. There are some in South Korea who question why the message came from Kishida and not from Abe directly. Also, the issue of legal claims remained unclear about the means of funds transfer – if the funds would go directly to survivors. As said, an apology would not be seen as enough as politician’s positions are too hard to change because of domestic political compulsions. That history remains as the core concern of Northeast Asian politics is unlikely go away so soon. The perception that Japanese school textbooks routinely ignore comfort women is seen to deny correct version of history to young adults. As late as in 2014, public opinion in either country remained negative of each other: 54.4 percent of Japanese carried unfavourable impression of South Korea while 70 per cent of Koreans held unfavourable impression of Japan. How a political understanding can correct such impression is difficult to say. Yet the pact has far more meaning than it appears as it is a shared recognition of each nation’s role in rising above differences towards working together in Asia. The Christian Science Monitor rightly editorialized: “In reaching the agreement, Japan and South Korea have signaled they want to end the controversy over this emotional remnant from World War II and Japan’s colonial era. As their economies and democracies have matured, the two neighbors have come to realize that their national identities are more tightly bound to the universal values necessary to maintain order and freedom in both Asia and the world. And just as they now seek to restore the inherent dignity of the former comfort women, Japan and South Korea are claiming a greater role as responsible stakeholders in the international system, rising above any need to assert an ethnic identity against each other or to define their nations as victims.”10

Importance of Abe’s Role

There is no doubt Abe played a leading part in securing the deal with South Korea. He realized that this could not be achieved without making some compromise. His August statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II was the first move to get Japan closer to China and South Korea. Abe worked on the momentum gained. He probably also calculated that maintaining good neighborly relations with China and South Korea ahead of the coming summer elections to the House of Councilors could help his Liberal Democratic party. It remains to be seen if the comfort women issue shall be closed for ever because there are doubts if the Korean public shall view positively Japan’s “sincerity”.


The next challenge for the governments in both the countries shall be to expand public understanding with patient efforts. From here on, the major premise for building a future-oriented relationship between the two countries shall be to show maturity by both sides to carry out the deal with sincerity and spirit. While the South Korean side shall strive to remove or relocate the statue outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul seen as an insult to Japan, Japan needs to be aware that its payment of a lump sum amount of 1 billion yen on humanitarian grounds to a foundation to be created by South Korea to support former comfort women is not misunderstood in South Korea as de facto state compensation. It is to be seen if the deal will facilitate the right climate for improving ties between the two neighbors.

Japan feels that in the past former Korean Presidents, including Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, had stated they “would never bring up matters of the past”, a reference to historical perception, only to reverse their positions completely owing to strong domestic public opinion. Diplomacy will be a casualty if the issue again flared up when a new President takes office in the future. Already a South Korean support group for former comfort women has slammed the latest deal and decided to erect more such statues.11 This adds extra responsibility for Park to handle the domestic issue. If this group refuses to remove the stature in front of the Japanese embassy, and state intervention is required to do so, Park might find herself walking the tight rope again. A strong leadership in South Korea needs to be insulated from strong public opinion and demonstrate greater maturity in the interests of regional stability. Both Abe and Park need to reorient their diplomatic styles not to needlessly criticize each other and especially while visiting a third country so that greater understanding between the peoples is not marred. Even in Japan, Abe is facing objections from some groups who opine that the government “conceded too much”. Therefore, both Abe and Park have to demonstrate strong leadership and overcome domestic criticism and not allow the domestic constituency to hijack a deal whose implication is beyond purely bilateral.

A possible fallout of the Japan-South Korea deal that could be meaningful in the larger regional interests is that it might facilitate increased economic and military cooperation between the countries, thereby complement Obama administration’s efforts to counter China’s rise and North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling.

Another consideration for Abe to reach out Seoul on the deal could have been to wean way South Korea from the Chinese embrace. As said, Seoul was rapidly cozying up to China and it was necessary to get Seoul back to the Japan-US side. Abe may have also been influenced by the strategic consideration to improve ties with China to keep Beijing in check from making efforts to use history as a diplomatic card. The deal on comfort women is still not the final hurdle between Japan and South Korea that is removed; both have mountain of pending issues including lawsuits seeking compensation for former requisitioned workers who were mobilized during the war, South Korea’s restrictions on imports of Japanese marine products and negotiations on a free trade agreement. Both Abe and Park ought to demonstrate statesmanship of international order to resolve each of these problems at bilateral level before finding common grounds on regional and global issues.

1. “Japan, South Korea reach ‘final’ deal to settle ‘comfort women’ issue”, The Japan Times, 28 December 2015,
2. “Full text of announcement on ‘comfort women’ issue by Japanese, South Korean foreign ministers”,
3. See, Rajaram Panda, “’Comfort Women’ issue: A Constant irritant in Japan-South Korea Relations”, 11 December 2011,
4. “New fund eyed to end ‘comfort women’ issue / Kishida to propose deal to South Korea”, The Yomiuri Shimbun, 25 December 2015,
5. The fund was established in July 1995 under the government of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. According to the Foreign Ministry, donations from the public totaling ¥600 million and ¥4.8 billion from government coffers were used for projects to support former comfort women, including payment of ¥2 million per person in monetary compensation for 285 of them in South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.
6. During the administration of Murayama Tomiichi in 1993, Kono Yohei, then Chief Cabinet Secretary, expressed Japan’s apology and remorse from a moral viewpoint. He had then said, “The Japanese army during the war deeply hurt the honor and dignity of many women”. Based on this statement, the Japanese government and the private sector set up the Asian Women’s Fund in 1995 in order to carry out the “atonement project” and pay out condolence money to former comfort women. Besides generous voluntary subscriptions from Japanese nationals, the campaign received extraordinary supports from the business community led by the Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organisations) and the labour world represented by the Rengo (the National Federation of Labour Unions), in particular the Ichiro (All Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers’ Union). But many comfort women rejected the money which was offered as a gesture of atonement. The Fund was dissolved in 2007 after being criticized as an attempt by the government to avoid the responsibility of state redress.
7. “China cautiously hails Japan-South Korea deal on ‘comfort women’”, The Japan Times, 28 December 2015,
8. Molly Jackson, “Japan apologizes for Korean comfort women: Can it heal one of Asia’s thorniest issues?”, The Christian Science Monitor, 28 December 2015,
9. Quoted in Ibid.
10. “The ‘healing’ aspect of a Japan-South Korea pact on ‘comfort women’”, Christian Science Monitor, 28 December 2015,
11. “South Korean group pledges to erect more ‘comfort women’ statues”, The Japan Times, 30 December 2015,

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Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

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