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Editorial: 'Comfort women' agreement between Japan, South Korea start of new era

The governments of both Japan and South Korea have arrived at a final agreement on the issue of so-called "comfort women," with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se holding a joint press conference to announce the accord. The two countries had disputed each other's take on the issue for a quarter of a century, and we welcome the agreement, which has come 70 years after the end of World War II and 50 years since diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea were normalized.

    Considering the fact that the South Korean government did not find the Asian Women's Fund established during the administration of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama acceptable, the fact that both countries were able to put their heads together to reach an agreement is groundbreaking.

    During the foreign ministerial meeting, Japan said it was "painfully aware of its responsibilities." Japan had until now argued that an agreement signed along with the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea legally settled the matter of comfort women, and stopped at saying it was "morally responsible." South Korea, meanwhile, had called on Japan to take "legal responsibility," arguing that the pact did not resolve the comfort women issue, which it characterized as a system that was inhumane and illegal.

    In the end, the two countries compromised by not specifying whether Japan's responsibility was legal or moral.

    That the Japanese government will spend 1 billion yen on a foundation that South Korea will establish holds significant meaning in this agreement. The South Korean government had previously objected to the Asian Women's Fund, arguing that it allowed the Japanese government to gloss over its own responsibility because the fund was based primarily on donations from members of the Japanese public. Pumping public funds into the foundation this time around makes the Japanese government's responsibility toward comfort women more explicit.

    The two countries have said that the comfort women issue would be "finally and irreversibly resolved" under these conditions, which will lead to the building of mutual trust. It will eliminate Japan and South Korea's futile squabbles in the United Nations and other arenas in the international community.

    So-called "comfort stations" became a fixture during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Imperial Japanese Military, which was troubled by the frequent rapes committed by its soldiers, contracted private businesses to operate them. At the same time, the military managed the comfort stations with detailed regulations, provided birth control, and granted them expedient relocation.

    Many women are said to have had no choice but to become comfort women due to poverty. It cannot be denied that, as the 1993 statement made by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono said, "in many cases the women were recruited against their own will, through coaxing, coercion, etc." It is also clear that the comfort women system did massive damage to women's honor and dignity.

    The comfort women issue was brought into the spotlight in 1991, when a South Korean woman came forward revealing her real name, to provide testimony that she had once been a so-called comfort woman. This took place against a backdrop of growing momentum to review history under Japanese colonial rule following the 1987 democratic reforms in South Korea. While economic and cultural exchange between Japan and South Korea increased, friction between the two countries over historical understanding and interpretation did so as well.

    It was under such circumstances that efforts were made to reach a settlement, through the release of the 1995 Murayama Statement by then Prime Minister Murayama, and the establishment of the Asian Women's Fund.

    At one point, however, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe publicly stated that he planned to undertake a review of the 1993 Kono Statement. In 2007, during Abe's first stint as prime minister, lawmakers and others close to him ran a paid ad in a major American newspaper denying allegations that Japan forcibly recruited Korean women as comfort women. This, in turn, earned them harsh criticism from the U.S. political world and led to the passage of a U.S. House of Representatives resolution criticizing Japan.

    The Constitutional Court of Korea's 2011 ruling that the South Korean government's failure to reach a resolution in the comfort women issue was unconstitutional was a watershed moment. Then President Lee Myung-bak brought the issue to the fore in diplomatic exchanges with Japan. His successor, President Park Geun-hye, who rose to power in 2013, took the heavy-handed position that unless progress was made on the comfort women issue, she would not partake in a bilateral summit with Japan.

    The final agreement between Japan and South Korea was reached with strong nudging from the United States, which counts both countries as it allies. Even without such outside prompting, however, Japanese-South Korean cooperation is crucial for both sides, for both diplomatic and security reasons.

    In both Japan and South Korea, many worried that the relationship between the two had reached its lowest point since diplomatic relations were normalized in 1965. There was no way that two countries, between which some 5 million people go back and forth annually, could stay at a standstill.

    In response to the agreement, Prime Minister Abe said, "We must not let this issue drag out and be passed down to the next generation." President Park no doubt agrees.

    There are bound to be people who are dissatisfied with the groundbreaking agreement, however. And it is the political leaders' role to build domestic consensus that is based on the big picture.

    The South Korean government has adopted a positive position toward the removal of a statue of a girl representing comfort women -- which is installed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, and which the Japanese government finds deeply problematic. But because the statue has become a symbol for the comfort women issue for South Koreans, its removal will not be easy. In addition to this, there are still many hurdles to overcome if we are to make the accord a historical one that leads to true reconciliation. Both countries must be ready to practice mutual trust and cooperation.

    Japan attached great value to obtaining a promise from South Korea that this would be a final and irreversible agreement. This wariness originated in multiple past experiences, in which the South Korean government would recognize its Japanese counterpart's efforts, but upon facing domestic backlash, would backpedal and switch back to a hard-line position. The Japanese government had also been dissatisfied that its efforts through the Asian Women's Fund went unrecognized.

    However, South Korea is not the only party responsible for complicating bilateral tensions. Even when there have been positive moves between the governments of Japan and South Korea, some Japanese politicians and media have interfered by justifying Japan's colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula or by smearing former comfort women.

    For Japan, South Korea is its most important neighbor. Diplomacy is impossible to carry out without mutual compromise. We must not devolve into a contest of who made more concessions in the agreement, but instead see the accord as a launching pad for a new era in Japanese-South Korean ties.

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