Don't let North Korea exploit 'comfort women' issue

Story highlights

  • Norm Coleman: The United States depends on South Korea and Japan to safeguard its interests in East Asia
  • North Korea has demonstrated willingness to exploit emotions of the "comfort women" issue, he says

Republican Norm Coleman represented Minnesota in the U.S. Senate from 2003 to 2009. He serves as a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy and on the advisory council for the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)After many failed attempts, the success of North Korea's recent rocket test should be a clarifying moment for the United States and its allies in Asia. When combined with North Korea's recent underground nuclear weapons test, last month's missile launch underscores how the precarious state of affairs in Northeast Asia threatens American national security.

The reality is that while the Cold War may have ended in Europe 25 years ago, it persists in Asia today. In addition to the North Korean threat, America and its regional allies must also confront escalating territorial disputes and challenges to regional stability in the South China Sea.
    Yet, at a time when the United States must look to its allies in the region for support, these very same allies remain engaged in a Cold War of their own, but this time over issues that are more than 70 years old.
    Norm Coleman
    The United States depends on South Korea and Japan to safeguard its interests in East Asia. Unfortunately, both countries are still embroiled in a long-simmering conflict over the use of South Korean women in Japanese "comfort stations" during World War II. And because South Korea stands in lockstep with China and North Korea on this issue, the conflict presents new challenges to American policy in the region.
    In recognition of the broader implications of this issue, the United States successfully brokered a bilateral agreement between Japan and South Korea to ultimately resolve the "comfort women" issue.
    Reached late last year, the agreement codified a final Japanese apology for the use of comfort women and the establishment of an $8 million fund to provide additional reparations for the surviving women. And while this agreement certainly cannot erase the resentment this issue has engendered for many decades among South Koreans, both governments intended it to be the final political word on this issue.
    Unfortunately, North Korea appears intent on using this issue to drive a wedge between America's two most important allies in Asia.
    In the wake of the agreement, the North Korean government described the deal as "humiliating." Meanwhile, Chong Dae Hyup, a prominent organization believed to have ties to North Korea, has used the agreement to rally nationalist sentiment in South Korea against Japan.
    It is hardly a surprise that North Korea has been perhaps the loudest voice opposing the bilateral agreement. The North Korean regime has long been desperate to deflect attention away from its own abysmal record on human rights.
    However, it was deeply concerning to see some prominent Korean-American organizations articulating a similar message as the North Korean propaganda machine when they called on President Barack Obama to fire Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a Change.org petition protesting the agreement. (Most Korean-American organizations actually strongly support the agreement).
    North Korea has demonstrated its willingness to exploit the emotions of the comfort women issue to undermine the historic agreement that the United States brokered with its regional allies in Asia.
    The considerable political capital the United States invested in reaching this critical agreement should be evidence enough of the importance of reconciling differences between our allies in East Asia. So it is important that the United States remain vigilant to ensure our allies uphold these understandings in order to maintain a united front against North Korea.
    No one understands the power of how historical grievances can complicate geopolitics better than the United States. At a time when the challenges we face in Northeast Asia are intensifying, we need to call upon the united strength of our regional allies to ensure the security of American interests in Asia.
    Japan and South Korea must not let North Korea reignite a passionate historical argument that could drive a wedge between America and its key allies in Asia.