December 29, 2015 6:08 am JST
'Comfort women' accord

Resolution comes at opportune time for US

NAOYA YOSHINO, Nikkei staff writer

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. sees an agreement between Japan and South Korea settling the "comfort women" issue as helping to restrain China's growing influence in Asia, thus protecting both its own interests and those of its two allies.

     President Barack Obama's administration plans to release a statement supporting the accord. He previously made direct appeals to South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to resolve the matter. Senior U.S. officials in charge of East Asian affairs have been in Seoul and Tokyo throughout the latter half of 2015 to help hammer out the details of an agreement.

     America's heavy involvement in the matter aims to check China's influence in Asia and avoid upsetting the balance of power there. The issue of wartime military "comfort women" has proven an intractable sticking point in relations between Japan and South Korea. Further damage to ties between the two could feed the threat posed by the regional heavyweight, making a resolution critical to safeguarding U.S. interests in the area.

Power balance

South Korea's ties with China have tightened amid chilled relations with Japan. Park in September attended a commemoration in Beijing of the 70th anniversary of China's victory over Japan in World War II, appearing at a military parade. Abe and Obama declined to attend, as did a number of European leaders.

     South Korea also has refrained from outward criticism of China's island-building and territorial claims in the South China Sea. Obama urged Park during her visit here in October to come out against such activity by Beijing. But leaders in Seoul do not appear to have taken such action.

     American officials cite South Korea's soured relations with Japan over the comfort women issue as a factor in its warmer ties to China, thus building momentum for the U.S. to help broker rapprochement between Seoul and Tokyo.

Forcing consensus

Japan's push for the U.S. to declare support for the comfort women deal is based on precedent. A similar declaration by the U.S. in response to Abe's statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in August is believed to have pressed South Korea to affirm the statement as well. The move was designed to take advantage of Washington's influence over policymaking in Seoul.

     Washington and Tokyo look to ensure a similar consensus this time around. The U.S. particularly seeks to prevent the comfort women issue from recurring, despite an agreement, every time a new government takes power in Japan or South Korea.

     "Given some of the very positive momentum that has been steadily built throughout the year, there is a real opportunity to make [a] historic breakthrough" on the comfort women issue, Daniel Russel, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in a November interview with The Nikkei and South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo. For the issue to be resolved, "the Japanese side needs to be confident that when an agreement is ultimately reached, it will be an enduring agreement and this will not be an endlessly recurring challenge," he said.

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