South Korea-Japan ‘comfort women’ deal: How the media in both countries reported it

Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Cho Tae Yul (centre) speaking to comfort women victims while surrounded by reporters.
Korean Vice-Foreign Minister Cho Tae Yul (centre) speaking to comfort women victims while surrounded by reporters.PHOTO: EPA

South Korea and Japan reached a landmark deal on Monday (Dec 28) on their dispute over wartime sex slaves, called "comfort women", that has soured ties for decades.

As part of the deal, Japan apologised and offered a 1 billion yen (S$11.7 million) payment to the Korean women who were forced to work in Japanese military brothels during World War II. Both sides also agreed to avoid criticism of each other on the international stage over the issue.

The deal would be “final and irreversible” if Japan fulfils its responsibilities, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said after talks in Seoul with his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida on Monday. 

The fate of the 46 surviving South Korean comfort women is a hugely emotional issue in South Korea. Historians say 50,000 to 200,000 women – many of them Korean – served in Japan’s brothels.

Here is a look at how the media in both countries covered the agreement: 


1. Focus on how victims and political parties reacted to the deal

The Korea Herald’s front-page report of the deal on its website on Tuesday (Dec 29) said that the apology was the first time “the nationalist Japanese leader (Shinzo Abe) apologised for the wartime misdeed in his name”. 

But it also noted that there were several points of contention that still remained to be resolved, such as the fate of a bronze statue representing comfort women in front of the Tokyo embassy in Seoul, which Japan wants moved and cites as a symbol of South Korea's unwillingness to lay the issue to rest.

The report also highlighted the reactions from the surviving victims to the deal. According to the report, some of the victims “strongly protested the bilateral agreement, urging Tokyo to clearly take ‘legal responsibility’ for its past misdeeds.” A similar report was also published in the Korea Times. 

Meanwhile, the country’s political parties were torn in their evaluation of the agreement, the Korea Herald reported. The ruling Saenuri Party noted the “considerable” progress in the negotiations, calling on Tokyo to implement follow-up measures to honour the agreement. But its main opposition party criticised the agreement, claiming that it allowed Japan to shirk its legal responsibility for the wartime wrongdoing. 

2. Leaders praised by US analysts; South Korean experts split on how deal affects Seoul-Tokyo ties 

Another report carried by the Korea Herald cited United States analysts as saying the the breakthrough deal was made possible by the "courage" and "statesmanship" of the leaders who brokered the agreement.

According to the report, the experts also said that the agreement paves the way for greater security cooperation between the two neighbours and the US. Both Japan and South Korea are key US allies and the deal is seen as helping the three countries “deal with a rising China and a nuclear North Korea”. “What's important now is for Seoul and Tokyo to fight back nationalist pressure and sincerely carry out the agreement," they said. 

But South Korean experts were mixed in their assessment, saying that any improvement of frayed ties between Seoul and Tokyo hinges on how the deal will be carried out. Some experts welcomed the deal as Japan had publicly offered an apology for the victims, one of the main diplomatic tensions between Seoul and Tokyo. But others claimed that the agreement did not specify Japan's legal responsibility for the issue, leaving a seed of discord.


1. Deal confirms issue would be resolved “finally and irreversibly”

Japanese media largely gave front-page coverage to the landmark deal on Tuesday (Dec 29), although there were fewer related stories on their website compared to the South Korean media. 

In its main report, the Japan News website focused on how both sides confirmed in the agreement that the comfort women issue “would be resolved finally and irreversibly”. The article noted that Japan had urged South Korea to give assurances that it would never revive the comfort women issue. “Kishida and Yun agreed that the two countries will refrain from denouncing or criticizing each other over the issue in international forums such as the United Nations,” the report said. “Kishida also expressed hope for improved bilateral ties, saying he is confident that Japan-South Korea relations will enter a new era,” it added.

2. Hope for better bilateral ties 

An editorial in the Asahi Shimbun on Tuesday (Dec 29), meanwhile, hailed the historic deal for removing “ the largest source of tension in their bilateral ties”.

“We welcome the weighty decision by the two governments to move beyond their long-standing feud and take a wise step forward to overcome the negative legacies of their history,” it said.  

The editorial also praised the efforts made by both the Japanese and South Korean leadership that made the deal possible. In particular, it highlighted the Japanese government  for not using  ambiguous language to refer to its stance on the issue - a move that likely aided the discussions with South Korea.

“The Japanese government, which argues that a bilateral agreement on war reparations concluded 50 years ago legally resolved the issue, has (previously) been reluctant to use any language that suggests the nation’s responsibility for the issue. This time, the Japanese government used more candid expressions in referring to its stance toward the sensitive topic while maintaining its official position.” 

Noting that the two neighbours were living in an age where many challenges demand global responses, the editorial  voiced hope that the new year would mark a brighter chapter in their relations. 

“The hope is that the new year, which starts in three days, will mark the beginning of 50 years in which Japan and South Korea can walk together with their eyes looking ahead toward a new future for their relations,” it said.