The term “comfort women” is used to alliterate to women and girls who were forced into slavery during the Japanese occupation of South Korea during and before the World War II. During the occupation, there were many Korean comfort women, with estimates ranging between 20,000 on the lowest side to 410,000 on the upper side. Comfort women stories are also told in other occupied areas during the conflict, going as far as Australia and the Netherlands in Europe.
Expectedly, the issue of South Korean comfort women is a sentimental one in South Korea. Comfort women testimonies have left members of the public enraged by the inhumanity of the Imperial Japanese Army, and many believe that some form of punishment must be meted on Japan for their actions. In 2015, the two countries entered into an agreement that has seen Japan pay an estimated 9 million dollars to South Korea. However, current South Korean President Moon Jae-in has sought to distant himself from the agreement, struck by his predecessor Park Geun-Hye. His position has inevitably led to strained relationships between the two countries.
However, both President Jae-in and Shinzo Abe of Japan have stated that the rift over the 2015 will not undermine their mutual approach in dealing with the North Korean threat. Speaking in Hamburg Germany during the G20 Summit, both leaders reiterated their commitment to creating future-oriented relations, especially in dealing with North Korea. The North Korean issue has been a headache for both countries as it has posed a threat to both of their security and safety.
North Korea has become an international issue since they developed and launched an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile earlier this year. Cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo is especially more important at this time since China has shown little interest in ending the North Korea threat. Just this year, China carried out economic retaliation against South Korea after the latter deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense is an advanced missile defense system made by the United States. This move has strained relationships between Beijing and Seoul. Further, China has been reluctant in imposing sanctions against North Korea after they launched the ICBM. These recent developments have made it difficult for China to be relied upon as a strategic partner in the international response to the North Korean threat. It is for this reason that Seoul and Tokyo must maintain their good relationship in dealing with North Korea.
That notwithstanding, the Comfort women issue remains a potential threat to this bilateral relationship between the two countries. A public opinion poll carried out by Gallup earlier this year showed that well over 70 percent of South Koreans want the 2015 Agreement to be renegotiated. They are unhappy with some of the terms that are contained in the 2015 agreement which they feel do not reflect goodwill on the Japanese side. Notably, President Moon Jae-in was openly critical of the 2015 agreement during his presidential campaign, promising to renegotiate it once he was elected into office. It is however not clear whether the two leaders discussed the agreement during the G20 Summit in Germany.
In a turn of events, the South Korean president has steered clear of the agreement since he was elected into office on May 10th this year. Analysts believe that the former human rights lawyer is attempting to strike a balance between the emotions of his citizens and national security interests. While renegotiation and implementation of the Comfort Women Agreement needs to happen, the North Korea security threat is a more urgent problem at the moment. It is therefore important that Seoul and Tokyo do not further weaken their relationship, as the security of both countries is dependent on the manner in which they approach the issue.