History weighs heavily on East Asia. To Washington’s enduring frustration, its two most important democratic allies, Japan and the Republic of Korea, have been at odds for decades.
The divergence between the two grew especially sharp over the last couple of years, during which ties between Seoul and the People’s Republic of China notably warmed while those between Japan and the PRC sharply deteriorated, driven by the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Moreover, South Korea had its own contentious territorial contretemps with Tokyo.
Both parties deserved blame. The South was determined to hang onto emotional grievances—serious and real, but long past. Japan insisted on justifying indefensible actions whose perpetrators were long dead. Destructive domestic politics ruled.
At the end of December, however, the two countries tried to put the issue of the “comfort women” behind them. Beginning in 1931, with Japanese military operations in China, Tokyo created brothels for its soldiers. For years Japanese officials insisted that the women were prostitute voluntarily engaged, despite evident coercion.
Now Japan has apologized and agreed to create a compensation fund. In return, the ROK promised to drop the matter and “address” the issue of the private statue of a young girl, representing the comfort women, facing the Japanese embassy in Seoul.