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Noah Feldman

Apology Isn't Justice for Korea's 'Comfort Women'

One long-overdue apology doesn't absolve us from stopping future atrocities.
Questionable motivations.

Questionable motivations.

Photographer: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

At long last, Korea's “comfort women” are getting a real apology from Japan's government for being forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II. But the moment is bittersweet, and not just because it’s taken 70 years. The apology comes not out of a change in Japanese sentiment, but from a change in geopolitics -- namely, the rise of China and the increasing need for Japan and South Korea to cooperate on mutual defense. And it comes at the price of a promise by the South Korean government not to criticize Japan over the issue again -- a trade of moral claims for compensation and finality.

The saga of the Japanese non-apology has had many twists and turns, demonstrating that in the contemporary political cultures of both Japan and Korea, apologies aren’t mere formalities but are laden with symbolic significance. A muted 1993 apology was accompanied by compensation from private donors and marked a refusal by Japan’s government to acknowledge its role in the sexual enslavement. Koreans got the point, and some women refused to take money from the fund.