For 70 years, the governments of Japan and South Korea disagreed over what Japan might owe the Korean women its soldiers abused during World War II. The story of how they finally came to agreement reminds us of the importance of including all interested parties in conflict-resolution efforts.
An unresolved issue
During the war, tens of thousands of women, many of them from Korea, were forced to serve as sex slaves for Japan’s Imperial Army. Since the war, relations between Korea and Japan have remained frosty over the issue of these “comfort women,” as they were euphemistically called. Japan insisted it had resolved the issue in a 1965 treaty regarding its colonial rule of Korea and through a 1993 statement that acknowledged its responsibility for the Korean women’s treatment during the war. But for many in South Korea, these moves did not go far enough in making amends to the victims. While only 238 former South Korean comfort women came forward to tell their stories, many others, who feared being stigmatized, are believed to have endured their pain in silence.
Tension grew between the two nations over the issue in recent years. In 2011, South Korean activists erected a statue directly across from the Japanese embassy in Seoul of a resolute young comfort woman seated next to an empty chair that symbolizes her dead comrades. The Japanese government considered the statue an embarrassing affront. Pressed by conservative hard-liners, Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe ordered a review of Japan’s 1993 apology to the comfort women, suggesting he felt the apology had gone too far. After taking office in 2012, South Korean president Park Geun-hye refused to meet with Abe in protest over the issue.
Meanwhile, U.S. president Barack Obama was eager for a thaw between South Korea and Japan. A closer alliance between the two nations, he believed, could help counterbalance China’s strength in the region, to America’s advantage, and also help to police North Korea, Juliet Eilperin reports in the Washington Post.
The White House opted not to try to mediate a resolution of the comfort women dispute for fear of being blamed if such an effort failed. But Obama reportedly raised the issue almost every time he met with Abe or Park. And in March 2014, he succeeded in getting the two leaders in the same room together for the first time, welcoming them to a nuclear security summit in the home of the U.S. ambassador to The Hague. Abe struck the right tone by addressing Park in Korean; she smiled in response, according to the Post.
That meeting created enough positive momentum that Abe and Park authorized bilateral negotiations on the question of the South Korean comfort women. The fact that only 46 of the victims who have come forward are still alive—most of them are about 90 years old—created a new sense of urgency. And the two sides became further motivated to reach a deal in 2015, a year that marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 50th anniversary of diplomatic normalization between South Korea and Japan.
Throughout the course of the talks, the Obama administration strived to remain a neutral listener that reportedly encouraged both sides to focus on “the 21st century rather than the 20th century,” one senior White House official told the Post. “That style of finding the middle was important,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
An irreversible resolution
Just days before 2015 drew to a close, South Korea and Japan announced that they had reached a “final and irreversible resolution” of their dispute. The Japanese government issued a formal apology to the South Korean comfort women for their “incurable physical and psychological wounds” and accepted its responsibility for the actions of its military authorities. It also promised to pay $8.3 million to provide health and other services to these survivors, while carefully stating it would not provide reparations to any of the survivors.
In return, the South Korean government promised never to criticize Japan over the issue again, according to the New York Times. Japan failed to negotiate the removal of the comfort woman statue facing its embassy; South Korea promised only that it would discuss the matter with the victims and their representatives.
Turning their backs on the deal
From a diplomatic standpoint, the agreement quickly reaped gains: When North Korea claimed to have conducted a nuclear test in January, Abe and Park were able to discuss the matter by phone. In Japan, Abe was largely praised for resolving the comfort women issue, though he did face some criticism from his political right for making concessions.
But in South Korea, the surviving comfort women largely rejected the agreement. Noting that they had not been invited to the negotiating table, they said that the matter should not have been treated as a political dispute but as an opportunity to listen to them and address their needs. Survivor Lee Yong-soo said at a press conference that she would ignore the deal because it did not clearly hold the Japanese government legally responsible for its behavior during the war and did not provide formal reparations to her and the other victims.
Meanwhile, the statue of the young woman whose eyes are trained on the Japanese embassy remains firmly in place.
Learning from a sensitive negotiation
The following four lessons emerge from South Korea and Japan’s dispute-resolution process:
- Consider what you’re missing. When a dispute festers over time, parties can become so focused on the past that they lose sight of what would benefit them in the present. Conduct a rational analysis aimed at identifying what you could gain from moving forward.
- Seek input from stakeholders. When trying to resolve a sensitive dispute, seek the input or involvement of all relevant stakeholders. By inviting those affected by your negotiation to contribute to a solution, you can increase the odds that any deal reached will be comprehensive and successfully implemented. Our article “New Strategies for Your Multiparty Negotiation Tool Kit” on page 4 of this issue offers specific techniques to help you meet this goal.
- Seek forgiveness with sensitivity. An apology can lead to breakthroughs in dispute resolution, but only when it meets the needs of those who have been wronged. Listen closely to them to identify whether and how you can provide the type of closure they seek.
Be a neutral peacemaker. If you’re an outsider who would benefit from the resolution of a dispute, look for opportunities to play peacemaker, as the Obama administration did—and strive for neutrality throughout the process.