SEOUL–With a breakthrough agreement on the so-called comfort women issue, as Korean women forced to work at imperial Japanese army brothels were known during World War II, Japan and South Korea are opening up a new, constructive phase in their long-troubled relations.

Korean comfort women in World War II

Under the Dec. 28 agreement, negotiated in Seoul between Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart Yoon Byung Se, Japan has officially recognized its government-level involvement in the infamous project, and agrees to pay into a welfare program for the aging survivors now in their 80s and 90s being cared for at a facility outside Seoul.

Through a special fiscal outlay, the Japanese government will provide one billion yen (US$8.4 million) for welfare and care of the 46 surviving women, out of some 220 who had stepped forward 24 years ago demanding recognition and compensation from the Japanese government. Only 46 women are now alive, after the deaths of nine in 2015.

In his remarks to the Japanese media in Tokyo, and through his subsequent telephone conversation with South Korean President Park Geun Hye, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed “Japan’s painful awareness of its responsibility for the affront to the women’s honor,” and his “most sincere new apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences.” Under a carefully crafted agreement with Seoul, Japan would not issue a formal written statement on the subject.

On Seoul’s part, President Park, speaking to Abe by phone, confirmed that the agreement was the “final, irreversible resolution” of the issue, suggesting Seoul will not bring up the issue as long as Japan implemented its side of the agreement. The arrangement reflected a deep sense of fatigue this issue has caused on both sides.

In Washington, top administration officials including Secretary of State John Kerry have strongly welcomed the agreement, citing the courage and leadership shown by Abe and Park. Among other things, the resolution was a response to a growing sense of frustration and concern the US has expressed over the long-running feud that hampered a concerted response to North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats, and China’s assertive stance over the South China Sea territorial disputes.

That being the case, this fence-mending was unlikely to be welcomed in Beijing, where China has worked hard to produce a strong collaboration with South Korea against Japan. As far as Park is concerned, any improvement with the US and Japan over the geopolitical tension could mean an erosion of her strategic balance towards China.

With Washington breathing over his shoulders, Abe seized with alacrity two developments that appeared to back his choice of resolving the comfort women issue without risking the loss of face. One was the recent Korean court’s ruling dismissing prosecution charges against a Sankei Shimbun correspondent in Seoul accused of slandering President Park.

He had quoted a Korean newspaper article suggesting she was holding a tryst while a shipwreck was killing dozens of students on an excursion trip. The second was the Korean constitutional court’s refusal to rule on a request to invalidate the 1965 normalization treaty restoring relations with Japan, under which Seoul liquidated all financial claims against Japan.

Abe reportedly used these two openings to move on ending the stalemate with Korea.

But the ball is now in President Park’s court as left wing and nationalist civic groups agitate for opposition to the deal. In fact, these radical fringes have tended to tie her hands, preventing her from taking a flexible approach on the comfort women issue. Even worse was the fact that it was her father, President Park Chung Hee, who had railroaded the normalization treaty between Japan and South Korea 50 years ago.

This left behind a mess of conflicting claims that also hindered active initiatives between the two countries. By a quirk of history,  Abe’s grandfather, the late Nobusuke Kishi, was the Japanese partner who strongly pushed for normalization together with Park’s father.

Comfort woman statue in front of Japanese embassy in Seoul

With that irony in the family background, the main challenge facing Park now is how to relocate the comfort woman statue installed in front of the Japanese embassy without triggering a nationwide uproar. Its relocation is part of the agreement.

Privately, Korean officials suggest offering another site, probably somewhere on top of the Namsan Hill overlooking the city, as a new site for the statue. To make the whole matter of moving even more complicated, an anti-Japanese Chinese civic group has recently added its own statue next to the Korean one, and moving them both could touch off diplomatic sensitivity with China.

Korean opposition is already growing. “We make it clear that the statue cannot be a condition for any kind of agreement or a tool,” declared the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery, one of many civic groups in Seoul.

In the end, Park is unlikely to be swayed by such protests. She has already issued a statement urging the nation to accept the deal with a “broadminded understanding” of the agreement’s meaning. That appeared to be a clear message that she intended to make the resolution a chief legacy of her presidency.

Shim Jae Hoon is a veteran Korean political analyst and commentator who served as Seoul bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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