Until recently, the issue of the comfort women—the name given to approximately 200,000 women and girls, mostly from the Korean peninsula, who were forced to work as sex slaves by the Japanese military between 1932 and 1945—had stymied any genuine warming of Japanese-South Korean relations (Nippon 2014). However, on December 28, 2015, the two governments came to an agreement that looks set to end the political gridlock between the countries for good. The accord was negotiated behind closed doors, without the direct involvement of any surviving comfort women, and reached to ease trade, territory and military tensions.
The absence at the table of the women on whom this recent difficult negotiation centered was not new. From retracted or dismissed apologies, to historical misrepresentations of facts, Korean comfort women have long been spoken about and spoken for, and marginalized by state leaders in both their native country and in Japan. This new agreement, like others before it, does not fully address what the comfort women have sought. Since this issue came to the political forefront in the Republic of South Korea (ROK) in the early 1990s, comfort women and their advocates have demanded a formal apology and compensation for their suffering from the government of Japan and specific acknowledgement of the Japanese Imperial Army’s involvement in the creation and maintenance of the comfort stations. Notably, the new agreement is not legally binding, leaving the door open for either Japan or South Korea to retract its assent and thereby re-victimize the comfort women; this time as pawns in broader interest calculations.
I have organized this essay into five parts. I first describe who the comfort women are and show how the patriarchal character of South Korea precluded surviving comfort women from coming forward for so long. I then explain how euphemization laid the foundation for the utilization of the comfort women as a group for unrelated domestic and international political purposes. Next, I demonstrate that there has been uneven support for the survivors from the South Korean government on this issue historically. Thereafter, I explain the details of the recent historic Japanese-South Korean agreement concerning the issue and discuss their implications. Finally, I outline the potential effects this accord may have for any future actions these nations might take concerning this long-festering matter.