No Grand Bargain

Japan and South Korea After the “Comfort Women” Deal

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

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