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The Comfort Women Deal: When Geopolitical Imperatives Supersede Nationalist Sentiment

On Monday 28 December a deal was struck by the Japanese and South Korean governments on the lingering historical issue of the ‘comfort women’, a euphemism for the tens of thousands of Korean women forced into sexual slavery at the behest of the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II. The issue has long obstructed rapprochement, and meaningful bilateral cooperation, between the two nations. The deal itself comprises an official apology by the Japanese side and US $8.3 million in compensation. For its part, South Korea’s Park administration agreed to abstain from articulating the issue, now considered “finally and irreversibly” laid to rest, in the international arena.

Several factors differentiate the present deal from previous attempts at reconciliation, the 1993 Kono Statement and 1995 Murayama Statement. In both precedents, the apologies offered were personal remarks made by incumbent leaders, rather than official pronouncements. This time, Shinzo Abe extended the apology in his capacity as Prime Minister of Japan, which is noteworthy given traditional Korean misgivings on Japanese contrition for its historical transgressions. The decision to provide funding from the national budget is purposeful – it is hoped that government money will assuage ingrained perceptions on the peninsula of Japan’s tendency toward evading culpability, an example being the sourcing of funds from the private sector in the Murayama Statement.

Notably, the conclusion of a deal on the comfort women issue is a departure from Abe’s previous reluctance to manifest remorse for Japan’s military past and proclivity toward historical revisionism. The change in policy stance is all the more significant given Abe’s propensity to court the Japanese far right, as demonstrated by prior visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and initial repudiation of the comfort women saga’s historical factuality.

The deal does not, however, come as a complete surprise considering the ample rhetoric on mending bilateral ties reiterated throughout 2015. Abe’s Japan now finds itself entrenched in a new geopolitical paradigm in which it needs to build pragmatic bonds with, rather than alienate, its strategic partners. In the context of the country’s pursuit of regional and global acquiescence to its military normalisation, and more broadly balancing an increasingly assertive China, stable relations with South Korea has become a prioritised policy goal for the Abe government. This gambit, in the form of a ground-breaking deal with the South on a highly topical issue, is both timely and critical to the achievement of Japanese foreign policy objectives and is denotative of Abe’s inherently pragmatic approach to diplomacy.

But Japan and South Korea’s move to definitively resolve the comfort women issue is more a product of external influence than a mutual push to improve relations. It is undeniable that US officials have been spooked by China’s recent quest to strengthen relations with the South, an effort facilitated by its ability to leverage ill-feelings over unresolved historical issues which characterise the inimical relationship between the US’s alliance partners. Regional concerns surrounding China are further exacerbated by the growing threat of North Korean nuclearisation, with the pronouncement of a successful hydrogen bomb test raising fresh fears over the Kim regime’s nuclear capabilities and implications for regional security. It goes without saying, too, that stronger Japan-South Korea ties will benefit US power projection in the Asia-Pacific.

Although the deal will conspicuously facilitate security cooperation, the narrative that Seoul caved in on the comfort women issue for such political expediency is damaging perceptions of the deal, labelled “diplomatic collusion” by a Korean comfort women lobby group. Regardless of the domestic backlash and its unpopularity among the Korean public, the deal was an inexorable outcome of the changing balance of power in Northeast Asia. While the proposed removal of a controversial statue erected in honour of the comfort women across from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul poses a minor diplomatic dilemma, which has so far been addressed only by a non-committal, vague promise from the South, this will likely take a back seat to negotiations on US-driven security cooperation in subsequent bilateral talks.

Closing this saga had become an unequivocal priority for both sides. The Park administration sought to achieve a quick resolution given the dwindling number of survivors, while Abe’s government undoubtedly realised that reaching a compromise on the issue would take the focus off Japan’s militarisation agenda and aid its geopolitical objective of shoring up the US trilateral alliance to balance against China. While question marks do remain regarding the extent to which popular backlash in South Korea will obfuscate progress in ameliorating cooperative ties, management of the Northeast Asian security environment and balance of power will continue to take precedence over nationalist sentiment.

Michael Parker is the East Asia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image Credit: Melissa Wall (image cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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