Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Can South Korea and Japan resolve the ‘comfort women’ issue?

Reading Time: 7 mins

In Brief

Japan’s relations with South Korea have reached a new low. Six issues continue to plague bilateral relations, exacerbating the divide on historical memory: a lack of trust between Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and ROK president Park Geun-hye, the ‘comfort women’ issue, the Takeshima/Dokdo dispute, ROK judicial decisions on forced labour, Japanese politicians’ Yasukuni visits and Japan’s moves toward collective self-defence. The ‘comfort women’ issue may be the most serious bilateral friction point, but it also presents the greatest opportunity for a breakthrough.


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

Some analysts in Japan argue that problems in Japan’s relations with South Korea are structural. The power shift in East Asia, it is argued, has encouraged South Korea to cooperate more closely with China and forgo alignment with Japan as a key power. Japan’s internationally weakened position also now allows South Korea to give full expression to its deeply rooted suffering under Japanese colonial rule from 1910–1945. And this has been a convenient tool for generating support and unity in the ROK domestic political arena.

But, given that Japan and South Korea are both economically advanced democracies and allies of the United States, it is in the long-term interest of both countries to improve ties. Besides, today’s deterioration in relations contradicts the close historical ties between the two countries that have existed since the time of Korea’s Three Kingdoms and Wa Japan.

There may be some political forces in Japan who rely on ‘Korea-hatred’ for their sustenance but they are politically marginal.

Among some of Abe’s so-called ‘nationalist’ supporters, the 1993 Kono Statement has been a source of indignation. ‘Nationalists’ have criticised the Kono Statement for giving the impression that these women were ‘physically coerced’ by Japanese state officials to serve at comfort stations. But there are no surviving documents that prove women were subject to ‘physically coerced’ deportation.

After Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on 26 December 2013, the media speculated that the next ‘nationalist’ agenda would be to revise the Kono Statement. The United States grew concerned that Japan and South Korea, its two allies in Northeast Asia, would fall out more deeply, with disastrous consequences for security relations. Subsequently, a combination of US pressure and diplomatic contact between Seoul and Tokyo saw Abe, on 14 March, make an important statement in the Diet that ‘his cabinet [was] not going to revise the Kono Statement’ and that ‘his heart [aches] thinking of those who had gone through indescribable pain, and that feeling is the same as all his predecessors’.

This paved the way for the Obama–Abe–Park trilateral meeting in The Hague on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in late March and US President Barack Obama’s visits to Tokyo and Seoul in April. But, while taking these decisions towards rapprochement with South Korea, Abe’s cabinet also decided to re-examine the drafting process of the Kono Statement.

It is not entirely clear what Abe’s government wanted to achieve by going back to the process of drafting the statement. But since the decision was presumably made as a political compromise to the Kono Statement deniers in Japan, the purpose should have been to prove something that is useful in defence of the nationalists’ position.

So when the review was issued on 20 June, the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) almost instantaneously issued a statement expressing their ‘deep regret’ at the review. The statement stressed that ‘the review by the Japanese government itself runs counter to its pledge to uphold the Statement’. The ROK MOFA also maintained that the Kono Statement is the result of Japan’s ‘own investigation and judgment’ and ‘the ROK government merely expressed its views informally’ after ‘repeated requests from the Japanese side’. International views were not kind to Abe either and as early as 22 June the New York Times carried an editorial titled ‘Japan’s historical blinders’. The official mood in Washington concurred that the review was a useless addition to efforts to resolve the issue.

Such criticism is understandable. The review put the ROK MOFA in an awkward position given domestic political dynamics — nuanced positions are politically difficult because any ‘cooperative attitude’ towards Japan is a source of criticism in present-day South Korea.

But the overwhelmingly negative bilateral and international commentary, such as that in the New York Times and of the ROK MOFA, that followed after 20 June neglected the content of the report as well as how the review has affected Japan’s domestic positioning of the Kono Statement.

Most importantly, for those who read the review in its entirety, it gives an affirmative impression of the way the Kono Statement was drafted and conveys great respect for the South Korean diplomats who did their best by advising their Japanese counterparts what kind of attitude and language was most conducive for eventual reconciliation. Those Japanese politicians and diplomats did their best at the time to acknowledge the great pain Japan caused. Their hearings with the comfort women were not made in an environment aimed at ‘legally proving’ their statements but in an atmosphere of listening with sincerity and consideration of the present-day feelings of those who suffered tremendously some 50 years prior.

Advice from the South Korean side was accepted so as to create an effective statement for reconciliation, while leaving no doubt that the ultimate responsibility lay on the Japanese side. Furthermore, on the evening of 20 June this year, Yohei Kono, the original speaker of the Kono Statement and widely considered a progressive within the Liberal Democratic Party, issued another historic statement in which he emphasised that the review ‘does not add or subtract anything’ from the work he did 20 years ago. All these developments stand on Abe’s confirmed statement in March that his cabinet has no intention of revising the content of the statement.

This has given hope that the Abe government may open a window for a breakthrough. Whatever the position of Kono Statement deniers, in the wake of the review there has emerged the unexpected situation that the statement has now found a certain historical legitimacy in Tokyo not only with long-time supporters but also among its long-time ‘nationalist’ deniers. This is an astonishing ‘yes’ that has sprung up in Tokyo in recent times.

It is in Japan’s interest to reach reconciliation on this issue, which emerged in Japan–ROK relations towards the end of the 1980s and has dragged on for more than 25 years. In the other countries and regions which suffered severely — namely Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and the Netherlands — the issue has been politically resolved through the activities of the Asian Women’s Fund. But with South Korea political resolution has become exceedingly difficult.

It is important to focus on achieving reconciliation while the women who suffered are still alive — only they have the moral authority to give real forgiveness. Abe and his officials need to now work with maximum humility and goodwill, based on the resolute position of the Kono Statement.

A word of caution is required on the magnitude of the task. Cooperation with Abe and his government may be politically risky for Park. Abe and Park will need to move quickly giving consideration to the happiness of those who suffered most. Moves to study and recognise the goodwill of those who worked in and around the Asian Women’s Fund will need to be freed from short-term political populism and be considered more broadly from the perspective of South Korea’s long-term national interests.

Japan must work to provide an atmosphere conducive to reconciliation, but at the same time South Korea must make its own decision as a nation in a calm and considered way. The past 25 years and more of Japan–ROK exchanges show not just how difficult the comfort women issue is to resolve but also that with a bit of hard work and political commitment the two sides can find reconciliation.

Kazuhiko Togo is a former director-general of the Treaties Bureau at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. He is currently director of the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘A Japan that can say ‘yes”.

14 responses to “Can South Korea and Japan resolve the ‘comfort women’ issue?”

  1. Resolved already.
    Evidence “Japan-Korea Basic Treaty”.
    Compensation for comfort women is described in the minutes of the treaty.

    South Korea is wrong.

  2. Mr. Togo is correct. Every nation accepted Japan’s apology except Korea, and almost every woman accepted compensation except most of Korean women. Why did Korea refuse Japan’s apology and compensations? Because there exists an anti-Japan special interest group in Korea called “Chongdaehyup in Korean or Teitaikyo in Japanese.” This group is so powerful politically in Korea that politicians must go along with them in order to maintain their seats. This special interest group had declared that it would continue to fight Japan for 100 years and would never reconcile with Japan. The only reason the comfort women issue is still alive only with Korea is because of the internal politics in Korea. Korean women are the real victims here. They are in their 80’s & 90’s and dragged around as showcases in order to advance this special interest’s agendas. Japan wants women to receive money, but Chongdaehyup doesn’t allow them to. (By the way about 60 Korean women disobeyed the special interest and accepted Japan’s apology and compensations. Do you know what special interest group did to those 60 women? They vilified them as traitors and published the names & addresses of them as prostitutes in newspapers. So those women had to live the rest of their lives in disgrace.)

    The only way for Japan and Korea to achieve reconciliation is for Korean government to somehow free itself from Chongdaehyup. But that won’t be easy because Chongdaehyup is just as powerfull a special interest as National Rifle Association in the United States.

    • There are some factual issues regarding Teitaikyo’s activities that I do not share, but fundamentally, I share the view that the ideological approach of this group that requires unequivocal apology and legal and criminal responsibility and purges those Korean women who willingly accepted Japan’s atonement is one of the reasons for today’s complications. I cannot agree more.

  3. The emotion of hatred between Japanese and Korean will be passed down from generation to generation, and never extinguished as long as the statue of the comfort women exist, even hundreds years later.
    For Japanese, the statue is the symbol of immorality, betrayal, perjury and false accusations against Japanese by Koreans. This makes Japanese avoid any relations with Koreans. For Koreans, the statue is a symbol of discrimination, resentment, malice and deep grudge against Japan. It makes Koreans offended by anything Japanese. Only action by focusing on the facts and by searching the truth can change this situation for the better. Time alone will never solve the situation. While Korean government has created taboos against freedom of speech about historical issues and closed the door to dialogues, Japanese government has opened the topic to the public and door to dialogue in order to pursue the truth because comfort women were not sex slaves.

    • My view is that how these statutes will be seen in several decades time is a matter better left to our children. As Deng said, “future generations might have better ideas.”
      I can only say that, without going into unecessarily polemical points, future Korean generations may have a lot to think about their past history, and it is essential for the Japanese to keep their moral authority by accepting that ultimately, what took place in the Japanese Empire is Jappan’s responsibility.

  4. I understand Mr.Togo is being quite careful in this article so not to upset readers outside Japan. Mr.Togo has stated on other occasions that he has talked to figures in the U.S. who are not at all up to accepting Japan’s true historical past concerning the comfort women issue, since the issue has become something closely linked to women’s rights issues of today within the U.S., hence to them what happened in history isn’t much of an importance but how the issue is treated today is the only thing that matters to them. Mr.Togo said in order to convince people of the Western society who see the comfort women issue like that, Japan would have to think and act wisely, so I suppose this article was written after Mr.Togo himself did what he suggested. It seems to mildly criticize PM Abe and his ‘nationalist’ supporters trying to give the impression Mr.Togo is not in favor of them, which is most likely what he felt was necessary in the first place, to have any of the opinions he stated in this article to be accepted by non-Japanese readers. Now, while I believe he did do a good job on it, I cannot help questioning whether it was really necessary to try to act as neutral as this. The comfort women issue is a history issue as it is about something which happened in the past, especially during one of the world’s largest wars. Logic is on Japan’s side when we say the comfort women and comfort station system can only be judged fairly when facts related are properly understood from a historical point of view. Most Japanese do not wish to judge the past based on morals of today unlike Westerners. But still it was Japan which became a peaceful country after WW2, not causing wars like some Western countries kept doing. This simple fact shows that it is possible to learn from history, without criticizing the choices of our ancestors. Japan has always looked forward to establishing a better relationship with fellow Asian countries, and while most of them accepted our approach, it is always only China and Korea which keep on complaining Japan has not done enough for them. But while Japan has continuously apologized and compensated to those 2 countries, the Western society has never apologized to countries and races they have colonized or forced into slavery at all. I believe such a society has no right to accuse Japan of doing what they ‘believe’ was morally wrong in the past, and I think that’s what Japan should say to them out loud. Making vague remarks only so that the Western society might be willing to understand us, is a method Japanese politicians have been taking for years on the comfort women issue and other assumed ‘war crime’ matters towards Korea and China, but did that solve anything? No. Japan keeps being blamed over and over for the same issues we’ve already made apologies and compensations on. We will certainly have to risk a lot in order to state the truth and how we honestly feel, but unless we do so there will never be an end to all this.

    • M.Kusanagi’s comment is a serious one, and there are many points involved. On one hand, it is essential to know as accurately as possible positivist truth. But at the same time, on certain issues of history and values we cannot stand just as pure outsiders. We cannot express our views without including some judgement from the present day life and values.
      I just leave two novels for Mr. Kusanagi to share. One is “Inago” written by Tamura Taijiro in 1964 about five Korean Comfort women escorted by a noncommisioned officer from North to Southrn part of China and who eventually dies in Southern front.
      Another easier example may be recently the million copies seller “Eternal Zero”. Can any one come out from this book or famed movie without real abhorence to the system of Kamikaze pilot which was a mighty system to kill the best of Japanese youngsters of the period? The abhorence which emerges from there is a very contemporeary judgment, and this can coexist with sincere search of what did happen in the last years of WWII in Japan,including the highest spirit of sacrifice and love for families.
      Something along this line can and should coexist on the comfort women issue as well.
      I hope it makes sense.

  5. This comment is unrelated to the Comfort Women issue, But Why ” Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and ROK president Park Geun-hye”
    Shouldn’t it be “Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and ROK president Geun-hye Park? As my understanding goes, PARK is a surname, as is KIM? Why is the surname always placed first with Korean names? Time they were treated like to rest of the world!

  6. When you refer to “Besides, today’s deterioration in relations” contradicting the “close historical ties between the two countries that have existed since the time of Korea’s Three Kingdoms and Wa Japan.” you fail to mention the invasions of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and colonial occupation prior to the two world wars.

  7. Christine pointed out Japan pushed Asia women’s fund. But this protocol didn’t express any official apologies and also ignored the dignity of women. Can someone utilize women as a militray brothel and negate all the facts? That’s severely criticized by US historians given that Japanese PM Shinzo Abe pushed them to distort the truth.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.