While most of the western world worries about the threat posed by North Korea, two of the most important western allies in Asia are involved in a dispute over war reparations. The two countries in question are South Korea and Japan. The dispute relates to certain abuses of Korean women during the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945.
During the war years, some Korean women were forced to work as prostitutes in brothels run by the Japanese. They were referred to as “comfort women”, and the euphemism is still in use today. A lot of anger and resentment still exists between the two nations as a result of these actions.
In 2015, the Japanese government and the South Korean government reached an agreement that was meant to settle the issue once and for all. Under the terms of this agreement, Japan apologized to former Korean comfort women and created a special fund to aid them. This fund consisted of 9 million yen (about a million US Dollars), but now the South Korean government is saying that this fund is inadequate to provide for the needs of the victims. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe disagrees.
One of the issues is also about terminology. The euphemism “comfort women” is seen as offensive by some, including the UN Human Rights Committee. In 2012 they asked Tokyo to clarify the euphemism. Some have even called for those words to be replaced with the words “sex slaves”. President Moon has said that the South Korean comfort women were dealing with emotional consequences that cannot be resolved by simple exchanges between nations. The many comfort women stories and comfort women testimonies have affected the younger generation to some extent as well.
Another issue relates to certain statues of these women that have been erected in South Korea, the United States, Australia, and Germany. The Japanese find them to be offensive and provocatory, and have repeatedly asked for their removal. The Japanese position seems to be that, while they recognize the wrongs that were committed against these women, they are not willing to personally pay for the wrongs of some of their ancestors. They also resent Korea’s alleged use of this issue as a political tool against Japan.
The two leaders met and discussed the issue while Abe was in South Korea to attend the Winter Olympic games in Pyeongchang. Some of Abe’s more conservative backers have given him some heat over his decision to even attend the games. Both leaders viewed it as an opportunity to resolve this old dispute.
Prime Minister Abe made it very clear that he is not prepared to renegotiate the reparation agreement. He insists that the issue has already been settled, and that Japan will give no more. Abe told reporters after his meeting with South Korean President Moon that “The Japan-South Korea agreement is one that finally and irreversibly resolves (the issue). It is a promise between the two countries and the foundation of our bilateral ties,” He went on to say that the agreement would not be modified by even one millimeter.
There were at least a few things that the two leaders were able to agree upon. Both share a desire to continue the pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program. Both also speak of a “future-oriented” relationship between their two nations. To facilitate this, they are moving forward for a plan to hold a trilateral summit between Japan, South Korea, and China as soon as possible. This is certainly a relief, as this part of the world has enough problems already.