At the end of 2015, Japan and South Korea reached a historic agreement that has enabled them to put to rest a controversy that had caused friction between the two nations since World War II. After years of slow and steady progress, Japan issued a formal apology to South Korea and agreed to pay $8.3 million to make amends for using Korean “comfort women” during Japan’s occupation of its neighbor in the 1940s.
During the war, Japanese forces frequently recruited under false pretenses, or even forced, women to work in brothels servicing members of its military. The total number of people who were made to serve as “comfort women” is not firmly known, but most estimates put the figure near or in the hundreds of thousands. At least tens of thousands in Korea were “comfort women” for the Japanese, and some of them are still alive today. In addition to Korea, many from China also served as “comfort women.” Some women from a handful of other nations were included as well.
Despite how difficult and sensitive this issue had been for Japan and South Korea for such a long period of time, an extraordinary act of diplomacy appears to have settled the controversy. Foreign relations between the two nations have been strong and getting stronger, and this agreement has been widely seen as something that will strengthen ties between the two nations even further.
The deal itself was formally struck during a meeting between Yun Byung-se of South Korea and Fumio Kishida of Japan, both in their capacities as foreign ministers for their respective governments. Following agreeing to the financial terms, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated the apology on behalf of his nation to South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye during a telephone call.
Prior to Japan’s formal atonement and agreement to provide financial restitution, multiple attempts were made by South Korea to extract apologies and compensation over this issue. However, having already provided $800 million to South Korea in grants and loans after the war, Japan’s official position had been that the issue was already resolved. The Japanese point of view had been that part of that money was for making amends for any damaging actions from that time period, which would include any claims regarding its use of “Korean comfort women.” Even while making this case, Japan in these moments usually did not formally admit culpability.
Eventually, more than one former Japanese prime minister directly acknowledged that some evidence of coercion related to “comfort women” existed, and they issued verbal apologies on behalf of Japan. Additionally, the Japanese parliament at one point also issued its own formal apology. But none of these deeds added up to a diplomatic agreement between the two nations that resulted in monetary compensation.
Given all of this history, the agreement between the two countries is widely seen as an enormous success. Funds from Japan’s $8.3 million payment go to a South Korean fund that supports surviving victims. Meanwhile, part of the agreement is that South Korea will no longer criticize Japan on this issue.
As a result, the settlement allows for both countries to close the history books on the long-lingering issue and instead focus on improving its strong diplomatic ties even further.