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“Comfort Women” Issue to be Settled?

Walter Russell Mead

Big news out of Asia yesterday:

The Japanese and South Korean governments are considering holding a meeting of their leaders in March in Washington to endorse settling the “comfort women” issue, sources said Saturday.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se are on Monday to discuss the issue of women who were procured to work at wartime Japanese military brothels.

If they agree on steps to solve the issue, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye may meet in Washington on the sidelines of a two-day nuclear security summit starting March 31 and then issue a joint statement to confirm the settlement of the dispute, the sources said.

Agreement on this issue is much harder than it looks, in part because both in Korea and Japan this problem has gotten entangled with many other questions. Both governments, however, understand the benefits of moving past the issue, so they are trying. The biggest problem is that just getting to a place where both governments sign a piece of paper saying the issue is now settled will probably not be enough to lower the simmering anger in Korean society as a whole. From Japan’s point of view, then, what is the point of paying money and taking blame if it still will not be getting the reconciliation and closing of the books that it wants?

The U.S. would like nothing better than to see this obstacle to closer Korea-Japan ties removed. American diplomats under a whole series of U.S. Presidents have been quietly nudging the two countries toward some kind of a deal. Reducing tensions between South Korea and Japan would greatly simplify the task of American diplomacy in a troubled region. But this remains an uncracked nut. The ‘raison d’etat’ that is pushing nationalist and conservative Japanese politicians toward a settlement, and that continues to push South Korean leaders to engage with Japan is, basically, fear of North Korea and China. But public opinion in South Korea is still not quite sure that the situation is grave enough to justify letting a century of grievance and bitterness against Japan fall away. It will be difficult for any South Korean government to lead one of the world’s most nationalistic publics toward a new relationship with Japan.

It’s particularly difficult now. President Park Geun-hye is the daughter of President Park Chung-hee. The first President Park was not only a military dictator who ruled South Korea from 1961 until he was assassinated in 1979. As a young man he also took a Japanese name and fought in the Japanese Imperial Army late in World War Two. Many of the activists who campaign on issues like Japanese treatment of the ‘comfort women’ were also involved in the democracy movement that considered her father the arch-enemy of South Korean freedom.

President Park who, like most people who study South Korean national strategy closely, probably sees the importance of good relations with Japan, would probably like to find some way to reach a solution. But it won’t be easy, and her own standing in Korea could be seriously undermined if critics were able to claim that she was selling out to the Japanese.

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