Japan and South Korea reached a breakthrough agreement Monday to “irreversibly” end a controversy over Korean women, euphemistically known as “comfort women,” who were forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels. The issue has stirred animosity between the neighbors for decades.
After a meeting in Seoul, the two countries’ foreign ministers said Japan will contribute 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) to a fund for the surviving elderly comfort women; in return, South Korea will refrain from criticizing Japan over the issue and work to remove a statue representing the victims from in front of the Japanese Embassy in downtown Seoul.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told reporters that the issue would be “finally and irreversibly resolved” if Japan fulfilled its obligations.
The agreement dovetails with the United States’ geopolitical priorities. Washington has long hoped for improved relations between its two major Asian allies to counterbalance an increasingly aggressive China and the erratic behavior of North Korea.
In Washington, national security advisor Susan Rice issued a statement congratulating the two countries on the agreement, which she called “an important gesture of healing and reconciliation.”
She added: “We look forward to deepening our work with both nations on a wide range of regional and global issues, on the basis of mutual interests and shared values, as well as to advancing trilateral security cooperation.”
South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged to use the agreement to improve bilateral ties. Abe told reporters in Tokyo that Japan apologizes to the women for their pain; yet he added that future Japanese generations should not have to keep on doing so.
The agreement was unexpected, especially under the conservative Abe administration. Until quite recently, Abe has been critical of attempts by previous administrations to acknowledge Japanese military involvement in the enslavement of the comfort women before and during World War II.
Critics have called him a historical revisionist, but he appeared to be echoing a widespread belief among Japanese nationalists that many of the Korean women were sold by their families, or worked willingly as prostitutes. In 2007, Abe said there was “no evidence to prove there was coercion.”
The legal controversy over former comfort women began in late 1991 when a group of South Korean women filed a lawsuit with a Tokyo court, demanding that the Japanese government formally apologize and compensate them for their suffering.
During a visit to Seoul in January 1992, then-Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa officially apologized to South Koreans for the suffering inflicted upon comfort women by the Japanese army. In 1993, Japan issued a formal apology for the wartime network of brothels and frontline stations that provided sex for the military and its contractors.
Japan’s more conservative politicians have criticized the 1993 apology, despite substantial evidence that the Japanese government was involved in trafficking the women.
Historical documents unearthed in the 1990s, along with accounts from soldiers and victims, suggested that military authorities had a direct role in working with contractors to forcibly procure women to work in brothels.
Nobutaka Shikanai, the former president of Japan’s most conservative paper, the Sankei Shimbun, and an officer in the Imperial Japanese Army’s accounting department during the war, has acknowledged the government’s role in building wartime sex-trafficking networks.
Many of the comfort women came from Korea, which was annexed by Japan from 1910 to 1945, and many Koreans still feel bitter over the brutal occupation.
In South Korea, 46 of the women are still alive.
In June 1995, the Japanese government announced details to creating a special fund to provide allowances to former comfort women. However, many South Koreans criticized the fund — which consisted of money raised from private donors — for glossing over the Japanese government’s role in perpetrating wartime atrocities. The fund was dissolved in 2007.
Special correspondents Adelstein reported from Columbia, Mo., and Kubo from Tokyo.