EDITORIAL: 'Comfort women' deal should lead to new era of Tokyo-Seoul relations
Japan and South Korea on Dec. 28 reached a landmark agreement to settle the long-festering issue of “comfort women.” The agreement, struck at the closing of the year that marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 50th anniversary of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, has removed the largest source of tension in their bilateral ties.
This is a historic deal for the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul suitable for this milestone year. We welcome the weighty decision by the two governments to move beyond their long-standing feud and take a wise step forward to overcome the negative legacies of their history.
After the Dec. 28 meeting between Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, Kishida defined the issue of comfort women as “an issue that deeply scarred the honor and dignity of many women under the involvement of the military of that time" and stated, “The Japanese government is acutely aware of its responsibility” for the matter.
“Comfort women” is a euphemism for women who were forced to provide sex to members of the imperial Japanese military before and during World War II.
The Japanese government, which argues that a bilateral agreement on war reparations concluded 50 years ago legally resolved the issue, has been reluctant to use any language that suggests the nation’s responsibility for the issue. This time, the Japanese government used more candid expressions in referring to its stance toward the sensitive topic while maintaining its official position.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his heartfelt apology and remorse as prime minister of Japan to former comfort women.
Abe once indicated a desire to review the 1993 Kono statement on the issue, released by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono. It is quite significant that Abe, albeit through Kishida, expressed his commitment to the core message of the key statement.
JAPANESE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSIBILITY MADE CLEAR
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun, for his part, made remarks that responded to Tokyo’s demands.
Yun confirmed that the agreement represents a “final and irreversible resolution” of the bitter dispute, although he premised his comment by saying the measures promised by the Japanese government need to be implemented without fail.
Yun expressed the South Korean government’s solid commitment to the terms of the agreement in an apparent attempt to reassure Japan, which has criticized South Korea for “moving the goal posts” by changing its position on promises it has made.
The top diplomats of both countries made these pledges in front of media. They should ensure that the agreement will be faithfully carried out.
Under the deal, the South Korean government will establish a foundation to restore the honor and dignity of former comfort women and heal the wounds they bear in their hearts. Tokyo will provide about 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) from its state budget for the foundation.
In the 1990s, Japan set up the Asian Women’s Fund, which offered compensation to former comfort women financed by donations from the Japanese public, as well as medical and welfare programs financed by public funds, along with a letter of apology from the prime minister.
This initiative produced positive results in Southeast Asia and some other areas, but it failed to achieve its objectives in South Korea because of the rise of public opposition to the project in the country.
Various factors were behind the fund’s failure to win support in South Korea. For one thing, the Japanese government was not necessarily very eager to promote the project. Secondly, the compensation paid to former comfort women was financed by donations from Japanese people, not by the government’s money. These facts provoked criticism in South Korea that Japan was trying to dodge its responsibility.
Both governments, citizen groups supporting former comfort women and news media should all learn lessons from this failure.
Through future talks, the two sides will work out details about the operation of the proposed new foundation. The top priority should be placed on respecting the feelings of the surviving former comfort women, who now number fewer than 50.
A support group for these women has denounced the agreement as “diplomatic collusion that betrays both the victims and the public.” Negative reactions to the deal driven by nationalism could also emerge in Japan.
But the agreement can be a valuable foundation for building new relations between Japan and South Korea. The Japanese government has to meet its commitments faithfully, while the South Korean government has no choice but to have a serious conversation with the people to win their support for the agreement.
PROMOTE RELATIONS BASED ON MUTUAL BENEFITS
On Dec. 18, 1965, Japan and South Korea held a ceremony in Seoul to exchange ratification documents for the basic treaty to establish diplomatic relations and four other agreements, opening a new chapter in their history.
The four agreements on war reparations, fishing industries, cultural assets and cooperation, and Korean residents in Japan have been improved in some way in response to the demands of the times.
Generations of people in the two countries, including those alive today, have a shared responsibility to review and reconsider the “1965 regime,” the historic framework created in that year by these agreements to define the basic assumptions for the bilateral relationship.
Japan-South Korea relations have developed remarkably over the past half-century.
South Korea’s per-capita income has grown to nearly $30,000 from slightly more than $100 back then. Japan’s support contributed to South Korea’s marvelous economic development.
Japan has also gained huge benefits from its neighbor’s rapid economic growth.
Over the past half-century, the development of the relationship between Japan and South Korea has been driven by mutual cooperation and benefits. This is also how ties between the two neighbors should be in the future.
The United States, which strongly urged the two nations to normalize their relations five decades ago, has been actively involved in the process leading to the agreement on the comfort women issue.
During the past two-and-a-half years, Tokyo and Seoul have been locked in diplomatic smear campaigns against each other, making demeaning remarks in front of other countries, mainly on the diplomatic stage in Washington.
Hurt and exhausted by this verbal battle, the two countries have realized the obvious fact that this futile fight produces nothing and decided to return to the most basic principle in diplomacy--dialogue.
LONG LIST OF CHALLENGES TOKYO, SEOUL SHOULD TACKLE TOGETHER
This is an age when the world faces a large number of challenges that demand global responses, including not only various economic problems but also issues concerning security, humanitarian assistance related to conflicts and natural disasters, and environmental protection.
That means there are countless challenges Japan and South Korea, the two major powers in Asia, should grapple with together through cooperative efforts.
The foreign ministers of the two countries on Dec. 28 voiced their expectations that the agreement will open a new chapter in the history of the bilateral ties. Kishida said he is convinced that Japan-South Korea relations will enter a new era, while Yun said he expects the two countries to start carving out a new relationship next year.
The hope is that the new year, which starts in three days, will mark the beginning of 50 years in which Japan and South Korea can walk together with their eyes looking ahead toward a new future for their relations.