Japan, South Korea governments should expand public understanding on 'comfort women' issue

Japan, South Korea governments should expand public understanding on 'comfort women' issue
South Korea's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se (R) shakes hands with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida (L) during their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on December 28, 2015. The foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan held talks on the thorny issue of wartime sex slaves that has long strained ties, with hints of a possible compromise emerging.

The Japanese and South Korean governments reached a deal on Monday concerning the issue of so-called comfort women, which cast a shadow over relations between the two countries. It is the first political deal between them since the diplomatic issue emerged in the early 1990s.

Key to the deal was Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida's statement that, "The Japanese government is keenly aware of its responsibility," and a corresponding statement by his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung Se, that the issue would be resolved "finally and irreversibly," at the same time and place. The latest deal is significant in that both sides were able to make concessions over points on which compromise had been difficult.

However, Japan has not changed its stance that the issue of compensation between Japan and South Korea has already been settled. In the latest deal, the Japanese government will provide about ¥1 billion (S$11.7 million) to a new foundation that will be established to support former comfort women. While there is a risk of this being taken as de facto state compensation, it is absolutely part of humanitarian support.

In recent years, Japan's international reputation has been considerably damaged due to the prevailing misunderstanding that there was forcible recruitment of women by the Japanese military. Also with regard to the latest deal, the Japanese government should clearly explain to the international community that Japan has not changed its conventional stance.

There remains concern about whether the comfort women issue will be really closed in the future, because Japan's "sincerity" will not necessarily be positively accepted by the Korean public. It is essential for both governments to make patient efforts to expand public understanding in both countries.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe exhibited a strong sense of mission to get the comfort women issue settled by all means and make discussions concerning issues of historical perception future oriented within this year, the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Meanwhile, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was urged to make the decision apparently because the US government called for both governments to improve bilateral ties.

Both leaders prioritized mutual national interests and took a risk. Abe has a conservative view on history, while Park has been positioning the comfort women issue as a pillar of diplomacy toward Japan. Because the two leaders worked on the issue, the latest deal could pave the way for a "new relationship between Japan and South Korea." I really hope so.

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