An Advance for South Korea and Japan, At Last

What will move her?

Photographer: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has finally said he's sorry, and now comes the hard part: repairing his country's relationship with South Korea.

Japan's reluctance to fully acknowledge its colonial and wartime crimes in Korea, where it forced local women to work in military brothels, has long been a source of deep acrimony between the two countries. With an agreement announced Monday, Japan will provide 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) to a fund for compensating victims. Both sides say that the issue is now resolved, and they have agreed not to raise it in forums such as the United Nations.

Japan's Military

Domestically, however, both Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye will have a lot of work to do to manage the backlash: Abe from Japan's never-say-sorry right wing, and Park from South Koreans who think the deal is a sellout. Fueled by century-old grievances, outbursts from both sides have torpedoed previous attempts at reconciliation. A bitter territorial dispute over small islets in the Sea of Japan lingers. And for all the ties of tourism and trade, public sentiment in both countries is negative.

To overcome those pitfalls, Japanese and Korean leaders must re-emphasize to their citizens the benefits of better ties. In addition to their economic and cultural relations, closer coordination can help on everything from improving disaster relief to leveraging their foreign aid. Better military and intelligence relations can help counter North Korea's bursts of belligerence and its steadily developing arsenal. And a more united front can help both countries provide a counterbalance to the rise of China.

The U.S., meanwhile, must perform a diplomatic balancing act in getting its two most important Asian allies to make nice. It can encourage and discourage as appropriate. And it can create opportunities for the two nations to work together more closely. One thing it shouldn't try to do is mediate, which could increase the risks of misunderstanding.

Neither an apology nor its acceptance can erase history. But they are often a prerequisite for a shared future, and that's what Japan and South Korea need to focus on.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.