Students hold portraits of deceased former South Korean "comfort women" during a weekly anti-Japan rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, December 2015.
Kim Hong-Ji / REUTERS

On December 28, just days before the end of the 50th year of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea, Seoul and Tokyo agreed to resolve their long-standing dispute over the issue of South Korean “comfort women” forced to serve as sex slaves by the Japanese military during World War II. Japan agreed to provide one billion yen (around $8.3 million) to a foundation that the South Korean government will establish to assist the former comfort women, reiterated its remorse, and apologized anew on behalf of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—a change from previous statements, many of which merely referred to earlier apologies without issuing new ones. In return, South Korea agreed to accept the deal as final, to refrain from criticizing Tokyo on the matter in international forums, and to work to “solve the issue” of a controversial statue of a comfort woman located directly in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

The Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers heralded the agreement as an important step in repairing strained bilateral ties. The landmark agreement has also been praised abroad (the U.S. State Department, for example, expressed hope that it would “help to improve relations between two of the United States’ most important allies”). But not all are happy with the deal: some of the Japanese conservatives on whom Abe relies for political support have claimed that there is no need to further compensate the comfort women, given the financial assistance Japan provided South Korea on the restoration of diplomatic relations in 1965 and the additional money provided to the victims through a Japanese fund in the 1990s.

The deal will provide a modest boost to a bilateral relationship on which the region's economic future and the United States' security interests increasingly depend.

The South Korean media, meanwhile, has criticized the deal for not going far enough: the Korea Times labeled the agreement a “deal that shouldn’t be” and claimed that Seoul was taking “half measures on ex-sex slaves”; other South Korean outlets have criticized South Korean President Park Geun-hye for failing to consult surviving comfort women before agreeing to a final resolution of the dispute.

Pressure is mounting on Park to repudiate the agreement, but it is unlikely that Seoul will take that step, since doing so would lead to a major loss of diplomatic credibility. Should it hold, the deal will provide a modest boost to a bilateral relationship on which the region's economic future and the United States' security interests increasingly depend. Even if critics of the deal are right to claim that it was motivated by diplomatic interests rather than by concern for South Korean victims, these geopolitical effects are worth considering.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (L) and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-Se at a joint press briefing in Seoul, December 2015.  The two countries announced a deal on the historic issue of South Korean "comfort women" on December 28, 2015.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida (L) and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-Se at a joint press briefing in Seoul, December 2015. 
/Min Kyeong-seok / News1 / REUTERS

AN OPEN DOOR

The Japanese–South Korean deal should facilitate greater economic cooperation between the two powers. Japan and South Korea are each other's third-largest trading partners, after only China and the United States, but recent political tensions and China's economic rise have slowly eroded this mutually beneficial relationship, and trade and investment between the two countries have fallen significantly over the past five years.

Improved political ties could advance ongoing negotiations between the two countries, along with China, toward a potentially game-changing trilateral free trade agreement; that would bring together three economies with a combined GDP of $16.5 trillion—nearly as much as that of the European Union—and would be the first step toward economic regionalism in Northeast Asia. The so-called China-Japan–South Korea Free Trade Agreement would be especially important for Japan, since if Tokyo finalizes it and also ratifies the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, it would secure free trade agreements with its top three trading partners. (South Korea and China are not part of the TPP, but Seoul—which already has bilateral free trade agreements with China and the United States—has indicated its potential interest in joining once the agreement is ratified.)

A trilateral free trade agreement would, in turn, further improve relations between the three countries in the political sphere and could even pave the way to the gradual restoration of regular summits attended by Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean leaders. (The three sides last convened in November, after a three-year hiatus prompted by Japan and China's territorial dispute in the East China Sea.)

Former South Korean "comfort woman" Lee Ok-sun speaks at a news conference at the "House of Sharing," a special shelter for former comfort women, in Gwangju, South Korea, December 2015.
Former South Korean "comfort woman" Lee Ok-sun speaks at a news conference at the "House of Sharing," a special shelter for former comfort women, in Gwangju, South Korea, December 2015.
NEWS1 / REUTERS

The resolution of the comfort women issue should also enable closer cooperation between Japan and South Korea on security issues. Tokyo and Seoul depend on each other, along with the United States, to deter North Korea and its expanding nuclear weapons and missiles programs. (Last week, Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test, reminding the region and the international community why it should not be ignored.) Yet in recent years, trilateral efforts by Japan, South Korea, and the United States to deter North Korea have lagged owing to the tensions between Seoul and Tokyo. The most glaring example of this difficulty was Japan and South Korea’s failure to conclude a bilateral military-information-sharing agreement in 2012, despite the fact that it was narrowly tailored to apply to security issues related to North Korea. 

The removal of a long-standing bilateral irritant should help Japan and South Korea work toward security agreements on military information sharing and equipment acquisition and cross-servicing. That would shore up deterrence and planning for crisis scenarios on the Korean peninsula. And it would ease the burden on the United States, which currently serves as the intermediary for military information shared between Japan and South Korea. Finally, since improved ties between Japan and South Korea represent a key step toward the United States' goal of militarily linking U.S. regional allies, the deal will also give a shot in the arm to Washington’s "rebalance" to Asia.

If improved ties between Japan and South Korea would benefit the United States, they would be a strategic loss for China, which has been courting Seoul over the past three years with greater economic cooperation and promises of a more strident commitment to denuclearization in North Korea. Ties with Tokyo, meanwhile, have been on ice. Beijing was quick to respond to the deal, insisting that it would “wait and see if [Japan’s] words and actions are consistent from start to finish.” Its skepticism reflects a broader concern: that improved relations between Tokyo and Seoul would strengthen the United States’ alliance network in Northeast Asia, which Beijing sees as part of a U.S. strategy to hem in China's long-term rise.  

In recent years, trilateral efforts by Japan, South Korea, and the United States to deter North Korea have lagged owing to the tensions between Seoul and Tokyo.

NEXT STEPS FOR NORTHEAST ASIA

Despite the importance of the deal, significant challenges remain for Japan and South Korea. Above all, although the issue of the comfort women may have been resolved at a political level, interest groups opposed to the deal in both countries will continue to influence the direction of bilateral ties. That influence will be most pronounced in South Korea, where Park is already under fire from the media, nongovernmental organizations, and civilian groups that have accused her of folding too early in negotiations with Japan. Abe, meanwhile, has limited political space to reengage in discussions on the issue if public pressure forces Park to ask him for further concessions. Fortunately, that pressure has at least temporarily subsided, largely because North Korea’s recent provocations have pressed Japan and South Korea to work together in response, in concert with the United States.

Of course, there is more that threatens Japanese–South Korean ties than lingering tensions over reparations for the comfort women—from South Korean restrictions on Japanese fish exports to the more serious dispute over the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan, which both countries claim and which South Korea has administered for decades. Observers should not expect any breakthroughs on that issue. Still, Japan and South Korea now have an opening to tone down their rhetoric on the disputed islets, and both countries should take the opportunity to stop broadcasting their claims so vehemently through government-backed public relations firms. Tokyo and Seoul should also avoid, or at least manage, predictable flare-ups, such as ceremonies in Japan celebrating the country's claim to the territory and the dispatching of high-level South Korean politicians to visit it.   

The recent agreement between Japan and South Korea is no grand bargain and will not comprehensively repair ties between the two countries. That said, the pact could reopen high-level political interaction between two states that are economically interdependent, key U.S. allies, and strong democratic outposts in East Asia. Maintaining the momentum from this month’s courageous deal will require steely political leadership from both sides in the coming year. 

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  • J. BERKSHIRE MILLER is Fellow on East Asia at the EastWest Institute and Director of the Council on International Policy. Follow him on Twitter @jbmllr.
  • More By J. Berkshire Miller