Landmark Japan-South Korea accord to fuel military cooperation

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Landmark Japan-South Korea accord to fuel military cooperation

by: Sam Kim, Maiko Takahashi | .
Bloomberg | .
published: December 29, 2015

SEOUL, South Korea — Japan and South Korea's landmark accord to end a divisive historical dispute will lead to increased economic and military cooperation between the U.S. allies, complementing the Obama administration's efforts to counter China's rise and North Korea's nuclear saber-rattling.

The two countries on Monday announced a "final and irreversible" agreement over the issue of comfort women, who were coerced to serve in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II. Under the deal, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government apologized, saying it was "painfully aware" of its responsibility for their suffering and would finance a fund for the about four dozen surviving "comfort women."

Tensions over the issue have risen since Abe came to power three years ago, complicating U.S. efforts to build a united front with its North Asian allies as the Obama administration looks to expand its military and strategic re-balance to the region. With China becoming more aggressive in asserting territorial claims and signs that North Korea has been expanding its nuclear arsenal, the U.S. has been trying to prod Japan and South Korea to resolve the issue and step up strategic cooperation.

"The United States has been always, always, always looking for ways for these two to cooperate," said Robert Kelly, an international relations professor at Pusan National University in South Korea. "The easiest way forward on the military and diplomatic side would be to do the intelligence-sharing agreement that was almost reached a few years ago. That was basically about to go through and it literally sank."

Those talks were suspended as relations between the two countries deteriorated after the 2012 return to power of Abe, who enjoys support from nationalists who deny the Japanese military forced the women into sexual servitude. Abe infuriated South Korea's public in 2013 when he visited a Tokyo war shrine seen by many in Asia as a symbol of past militarism.

Abe offered a personal apology over the comfort women to South Korean President Park Geun-hye in a phone call after Monday's agreement, and the two leaders agreed to strengthen military ties, Hiroshige Seko, Japan's deputy chief Cabinet secretary, told reporters in Tokyo.

The United States has more than 75,000 troops based in the two countries, and they are key components of its effort to maintain military superiority in the region. In recent months, the U.S. Navy has begun to challenge China over its territorial claims to most of the South China Sea and has looked to its allies for support. Seoul and Tokyo, both in range of Pyongyang's missile, rely on the U.S. to help deter North Korean aggression.

U.S. President Barack Obama has pushed Abe and Park to overcome their differences. In March 2014, he convinced Park to agree to a three-way meeting with Abe at a conference on nuclear proliferation in The Hague. Park had previously refused to meet Abe until Japan did more to deal with its wartime legacy.

More than a year of behind the scenes talks would pass before Park held a bilateral meeting with Abe in Seoul in November that helped pave the way for Monday's agreement.

"The U.S. is the key ally for Japan and South Korea, and the Americans' view is important. They don't care who is right or wrong, they just want the two allies to work together," said Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University Japan campus.

Bilateral trade between the Japan and South Korea has also suffered as the tensions escalated, and with their economies struggling, the agreement may also have been spurred by both countries looking for ways to boost commerce.

Shipments fell by about $20 billion between 2012 and 2014 on a mix of the yen's depreciation and the fallout from the tensions. With Japan's economy teetering near recession and South Korean exports declining every month this year, the two countries are looking for ways to shore up growth.

"Not only economic factors but political frigidities have contributed to the decline in investment and trade in recent years," said Sakong Mok, who researches South Korea-Japan ties at the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade in Sejong city. Improved relations may help spur Japanese investment in South Korea and improves the chance for the two countries to negotiate the revival of a currency swap which expired early this year, said Sakong.

Park told Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Seoul on Monday that the agreement could be a new starting point for bilateral relations.

"The issue of historical disputes can be seen as mostly resolved and it's now time for the two sides to talk about the real issues that affect their interests, not only how they are going to boost their trade but also how they will work together with the U.S. to reshape the geopolitical order of the region," said Jin Chang Soo, director of Japan studies at the non-profit Sejong Institute, near Seoul."

Resentment over Japan's wartime legacy runs deep in South Korea, which suffered under 35 years of Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. Historians say anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 women -- many of them Korean -- were forced into service in Japan's military brothels.

Japan had offered a previous apology in 1993 and set up a compensation fund that was rejected by some victims because it was privately funded. The issue became more divisive under Abe, given the nationalist leanings of some in his government and Abe's own comments questioning whether comfort women were coerced into service.

This year's 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II focused world attention on the country's war legacy and the comfort women. The fact that many of the survivors are in their nineties, lent urgency to an agreement.

Takahashi reported from Tokyo.

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