This article, “Testing the Japan-Korea Relationship,” originally was published in the Wall Street Journal Asia Edition on January 13, 2016.
North Korea’s Jan. 5 nuclear test reinforces the need for America’s two regional allies to coordinate their response to a challenging threat environment. The explosion came less than a month after Japan and South Korea announced that they had “resolved finally and irreversibly” their longstanding dispute over the so-called comfort women. The two governments now have a chance to show whether they can overcome domestic obstacles and pursue deeper security cooperation.
The December agreement specifies that Japan will provide a onetime, $8.3 million contribution to aid Korean women who were pressed into service in Japan’s military brothels during World War II. Additionally, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed anew “his most sincere apologies and remorse.” Provided Tokyo fulfills its commitments, Seoul agreed that it would view the matter as closed.
But it’s becoming clear that the comfort-women agreement isn’t the elixir many had hoped for. It is fragile and could collapse without continuous and significant shows of support by Mr. Abe and South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye.
The problem lies in the terms of the agreement itself. While the foreign ministers from both countries stressed that the pact will resolve the issue “finally and irreversibly,” the text of the agreement makes resolution contingent on both governments following through on their commitments to each other’s satisfaction. Both governments have to believe that the other is sincerely following both the letter and the spirit of the agreement.
It’s becoming clear that the comfort-women agreement isn’t the elixir many had hoped for. It is fragile and could collapse without continuous and significant shows of support by Mr. Abe and South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye.
Unfortunately, after years of arguments over whether Japan has properly atoned for its treatment of Koreans during its 35-year colonization of the Korean Peninsula — compounded by disputes over history textbooks, territory and the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo — the trust required to make this agreement stick is in short supply. Politicians, journalists and activists in both countries, whether survivors’ groups in South Korea or right-wing revisionists in Japan, will pounce on any sign that the other side isn’t living up to its commitments.
Both Ms. Park and Mr. Abe will be pressured to renege at the first sign that the other is cheating. In that case the agreement will end up as little more than another grievance in the dispute.
Both leaders immediately came under fire at home for the terms of the agreement. In South Korea, Ms. Park was criticized for not consulting with former comfort women, who argued that she sacrificed historical justice for political expediency.
In Japan, the agreement was promptly criticized by some conservative members of Mr. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. Media leaks just days after the announcement suggest that Tokyo may use the lack of a firm commitment from Seoul regarding the removal of the comfort women statue facing the Japanese Embassy as a reason to withhold the promised contribution.
Nevertheless, the bilateral pact may be the best possible agreement given the fraught relationship between the two countries. By agreeing to discuss the matter with Seoul, Tokyo acknowledged that it couldn’t resolve the issue unilaterally. Accordingly, in contrast to Japan’s previous effort to make amends to the comfort women — a 1993 statement by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono and the creation of a quasi-public Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) in 1995 — the new agreement states explicitly that Japan’s contribution will be a public contribution from the government budget and includes an apology from Mr. Abe in his official capacity.
Ultimately the only way the agreement will survive is if both leaders devote significant political capital not only to delivering on their commitments but also to selling the compromise domestically and punishing attempts by their own allies and supporters to torpedo it.
Questions remain as to whether the agreement will be officially approved by the Japanese cabinet or, for that matter, either country’s legislature. But the willingness of Mr. Abe, who earlier in his career opposed the Kono statement and wondered whether Japan needed to apologize at all, to offer an apology is a significant development.
With Mr. Abe’s involvement, it is possible to secure the cooperation or at least the acquiescence of Japanese conservatives to the resolution, which proved impossible in the case of the Kono statement and the AWF. Finally, it is unlikely that future Japanese governments will show greater willingness to offer more generous terms to Seoul, particularly if the agreement founders due to Seoul’s cold feet.
Ultimately the only way the agreement will survive is if both leaders devote significant political capital not only to delivering on their commitments but also to selling the compromise domestically and punishing attempts by their own allies and supporters to torpedo it. Mr. Abe and Ms. Park have to convince their own constituents that the benefits of closer cooperation between Japan and South Korea, including stronger trade and investment links and more robust bilateral security cooperation, are worth the concessions made by both governments.
North Korea’s recent nuclear test is an important reminder of the dangers the two countries face. China’s rise and increasingly assertive behavior is also putting pressure on the region’s democracies.
As Washington recognizes, if its two major allies in Northeast Asia can make this agreement stick, their ability to coordinate efforts to counter regional security threats will be greatly enhanced. But that can only happen if current and future leaders in Tokyo and Seoul resist the temptation to score political points by playing the history card.
This article originally was published in the Wall Street Journal Asia Edition on January 13, 2016.
Tobias Harris is the Fellow for Economy, Trade and Business at Sasakawa USA, specializing in topics including Japanese politics, the Japanese political economy, US-Japan economic relations, Japanese public administration and Abenomics. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. View more of his research and analysis here.
Jeffrey Hornung is the Fellow for the Security and Foreign Affairs Program at Sasakawa USA, specializing in topics including Japanese foreign and security policies; the U.S.-Japan alliance; Northeast Asian security; maritime security; and the U.S.-ROK alliance. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. View more of his research and analysis here.