Japan and South Korea have a rich history that binds them together. Their geographical proximity has played a critical role in defining various narratives that have shaped how the two countries have related over the years. One of the longstanding narratives that have defined the diplomatic relationship between Japan and South Korea is the Korean comfort women debate. The Korean comfort women is a hotly contested issue that has strained the diplomatic relationship between the two erstwhile enemies who have increasingly put in place various steps towards mending fences. While the two nations have made progress in overcoming the temptation of primarily relying on historical facts to define the present and the future, there has been growing disagreements over the place of the dark pasts in redefining how these two relate. Consequently, these differences have eroded the expectations that were evident when the two countries signed South Korean comfort women agreement in December 2015.
Same Crime, Different Opinions
South Korea and Japan share numerous historical events and ties between them that date back to early centuries. However, few of them stick out and are as contentious as the colonization of South Korea by Japan. The subsequent mistreatment of South Koreans and especially their women by the Japanese soldiers have become a bone of contention in an endless dog fight between the two economic, cultural and political powerhouses. The treatment of South Korean women by the Japanese soldiers is especially a very emotive and contentious issue that has scuttled most of the diplomatic relations.
During the colonization era, thousands of South Korean women were taken as sexual slaves by Japanese soldiers. While some where tricked, most of them were kidnapped and later used as comfort women for the soldiers. While this victimhood narrative is one of the issues that many people across the border between the two countries agree on, contentions have risen on the level the Japanese have taken responsibility for these crimes and whether they should have forgotten in the quest of forging a new diplomatic relationship between the two countries.
Moreover, some scholars have comfort women testimonies to question the blanket assumption that all the comfort women were victims. They argue that some of the South Korean women worked willingly. However, such views have drawn sharp criticism from the victims and South Koreans. In some cases, they have been faced with law suits for defaming an important of the South Korean history with Japan. Additionally, they have held that some South Koreans collaborated with Japanese in recruiting the would-be South Korean comfort women. This primarily challenges the widely held notion that only Japanese soldiers were culpable in the sexual enslavement of South Korean women.
Putting a Historical Injustice Behind
Despite these differences in perceptions on the issue, the success of any diplomatic relationship between the two countries is hinged on finding an amicable solution that can pave the way forward. Japan and South Korea stand to gain significantly with an effective diplomatic relationship framework than being antagonized by such a crucial part of their history. In December 2015, the two countries made a significant step towards finally resolving their differences surrounding this historically emotive issue. They signed an agreement that saw Japan agree to pay over $8 million to compensate the victims. The Japanese government through Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also issued an apology over the issue. The irreversible resolution was signed by the prime minster and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
The agreement has faced opposition from several quarters including former South Korean comfort women who are irked by the lack of consultation from the two governments before signing the agreements. Others also hold that it amounts to Japan trying to escape their responsibilities as already witnessed by the discomfort they have with the commemorative statues around South Korea that highlight comfort women stories. Despite these disagreements, the agreement is an important step towards building stronger diplomatic relationships between the two nations.