Many of us remember World War II by two particular events: the attack on Pearl Harbor, which many consider the beginning of the United States' involvement in the war, and the Holocaust. To Americans, World War II was a bloody, brutal couple of years from which the United States emerged victorious. To South Koreans, however, World War II is largely remembered by the comfort women whose identities and legacies have long gone unacknowledged and uncompensated by Japan's government.
What are comfort women?
During the 1930s and 40s, when Japan began to expand and invade other nations, they set up "comfort stations" within their military bases. On the surface, they were meant for exactly what it sounds like: comforting Japanese soldiers while they serve their country on the front lines in a foreign land. Realistically, however, they were places where non-Japanese women and girls would be imprisoned and raped dozens of times a day. Most of the comfort women were Korean (although there were some from China and other imperialized Asian nations).
While at first they would be recruited almost as prostitutes, eventually Japanese soldiers would simply kidnap, threaten, or kill women and young girls who did not obey them. In fact, the majority of comfort "women" were just girls: most of them were between the ages of 14 and 18, typically because if they were younger, they were more likely to be virgins.
What does the deal entail?
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to pay approximately $8 million in reparations, as well as issue a formal apology on behalf of the Japanese government. The money would not go directly to the pockets of the victims, but will instead go to a foundation the South Korean government will create to provide medical care, nursing, and other services.
South Korea, in return, will consider the deal a "final and irreversible resolution" of the issue. This would mean they would likely not be able to request more money or action on Japan's part, should the issue arise again. They have also agreed never to criticize Tokyo for their involvement in the proliferation and exploitation of comfort women ever again. Furthermore, the government will consider removing a statue erected in front of the Japanese embassy building in South Korea (see header) that is meant to represent the comfort women and be a constant reminder of the atrocities of 70 years ago.
What has been the response?
South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her supporters believe the deal is a promising and important step in improving relations between South Korea and Japan, but much of the nation is still torn on the issue. Many citizens still harbor anti-Japanese sentiment and believe the deal is simply a way for Japan to pay money and not have to face legal repercussions for the actions that occurred to women who are still alive today. Activists as well as several of the remaining survivors demand further reparations from Japan, and insist that declaring the issue finally and irreversibly resolved would not lead to actual justice for the victims.
The relationship between Japan and South Korea is extremely tense, and there is no telling for sure whether or not conditions will improve as a result of the deal. We can only wait and see.