On December 28, 2015, the Japanese and South Korean governments announced their agreement on the “comfort women” issue. This sudden breakthrough 70 years after the end of WWII and 24 years after the issue in 1991 had become a fundamental diplomatic issue for the two countries proved to be a great surprise not only for the two societies but also for international society. One question being asked is why at this particular time did the two governments find a way to reach the agreement. Another is would this agreement signify some kind of big change in bilateral relations, which had been intensely split over the history question before this point.
Before considering these questions, it is first necessary to consider what has been driving the obsession with historical memory questions in this bilateral relationship. For this, I reflect on three factors. First, today’s historical consciousness issues are not simply a result of events prior to the conclusion of WWII. Many issues, beginning with the “comfort women” one, that are known as contentious, historical memory divisions in bilateral relations today, are problems that aroused heated arguments beginning only in the 1980s or early 1990s. They did not, to the same degree, draw attention continuously from the end of the war. Second, one reason for this kind of intensification of historical consciousness issues in Japan-ROK relations is due to the lowering for both countries of the importance of the other country against the background of the transformation in the security environment after the end of the Cold War. In addition, in this period, with the economic development and globalization of South Korea widening its options, there was less necessity for cooperation between the two countries.
Third, along with the reduced salience of this relationship, historical memory issues that had long been present served to deepen mutual distrust. In Japan, feelings of distrust toward South Korea intensified in 2012 following President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Takeshima/ Dokdo Islands. Similarly, South Korean feelings of distrust were aggravated, playing a role in hardening mutual emotions about a range of historical memory issues. The December 2015 agreement and what led to it need to be seen in this context. This paper draws heavily on public opinion polls, reflecting on long-term changes.