Japan and South Korea: A New Beginning?

South Korean police stand guard beside a comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

Japan and South Korea have very close alliances with the United States. They also have had diplomatic relations with each other for 50 years, not to mention considerable trade back and forth during that time. At a popular level, many Japanese are wild about Korean bulgogi and soap operas while many Koreans love Japanese sushi and anime. That doesn’t mean, however, that the two countries are particularly close. For decades, the legacy of Japanese colonialism and wartime conduct has remained a major stumbling block to improved relations.

South Korea and Japan spar over interpretations of that history, particularly as represented in textbooks. They also have a very concrete dispute over a particular island (Dokdo). But perhaps the most painful disagreement between the two countries has been over the “comfort women” issue.

An agreement this week on the “comfort women” issue–between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye–may finally put the matter to rest. But not everyone in the Korean community is happy with the deal.

A Sensitive Issue

As part of its expansionism in the early part of the 20th century, the Japanese Army dragooned as many as 200,000 young women and girls–from Korea, China, the Philippines, and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region–into sexual slavery. The practice began in 1931, when Japan occupied Manchuria, and the army wanted to prevent Japanese soldiers from raping Chinese women. At first, the army relied on prostitutes. By 1937, however, the army expanded the pool to those tricked into service or simply forced to participate against their will, including girls as young as 10. They were made to serviceas many 30-40 Japanese soldiers per day. Korea, a Japanese colony since 1910, provided the bulk of the involuntary participants.

For years after the war, Japanese officials focused on the first part of the story, insisting that the “comfort women” were prostitutes volunteering for the assignment. They also pointed to the 1965 agreement that established diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea–and provided $800 million in various forms of compensation–as taking care of all colonial and wartime issues. Particularly as it became a democratic society in the late 1980s, South Korea began to reopen many wartime issues, including this issue of sexual slavery (and the even more sensitive question of Korean collaboration in the process).

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