Bilateral relations in Northeast Asia are characterised by mistrust, resentment and disputed sovereignty largely as a result of history. China, Japan and South Korea, in particular, have the potential to form a powerful bloc to preserve the security of the region, stimulate economic growth and improve the fortunes of neighbouring states. However, such a potential has not been realised – not even been attempted to be realised – because of historical grievances between the nations.
One of the main issues affecting Japan-South Korea relations is the Imperial Army’s use of ‘comfort women’ during WWII. These women – mainly Korean but also hailing from China and several Southeast Asian nations – were sex slaves, forced to travel with Army units during the war, where they would be made to have sex with multiple partners on a daily basis.
Whilst an awful system in itself, what has really infuriated the South Koreans in the years since 1945 is Japan’s apparent refusal to offer a comprehensive apology for the practice, with several high-ranking officials even disputing its existence. For the Koreans, this lack of acknowledgement and remorse is comparable with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s claim that the Holocaust was merely a ‘detail of history’.
As with its wartime atrocities in general, Japan has previously apologised for its use of ‘comfort women’, most notably Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa’s 1993 apology and that of his successor Tomiichi Murayama in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the war’s conclusion. Perhaps significantly, however, neither of these Prime Ministers belonged to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has dominated post-WWII Japanese politics and some of whose leaders have taken a decidedly revisionist approach to history.
Japan has now apologised again, this time under the reign of Shinzo Abe, an LDP stalwart and a man accused of denying the true role of ‘comfort women’ in the past. Along with the promise of implementing a 1bn yen fund for the remaining surviving women – perhaps only 46 out of a possible 200,000 – Japan has accepted ‘deep responsibility’ for the practice, signalling its intent to draw a line under the issue for good. South Korea, for its part, has agreed to do likewise, provided that Tokyo makes good on its promises.
Whilst other historic disputes remain between the two nations – such as Japan’s colonial rule in Korea, history textbook revisionism on both sides, and territorial disputes – this is a crucial step to normalising relations and perhaps a sign that both Tokyo and Seoul are keen to form a bulwark (however tenuous) against an increasingly assertive neighbour in China.
Most importantly, it provides some closure for the few surviving women forced to endure some of the most painful and humiliating atrocities of a war littered with heinous crimes. It is hoped that both sides honour this historic agreement and finally start facing a future that will bring its own challenges and opportunities.