Kim Bok-dong and Kihl Wan-ok, two wizened octogenarian women, do not look as if they could pose much of a threat to US grand strategy in the Pacific. Nor do they intend to do so.
But as President Obama tries to put his “pivot to Asia” into effect, making the region key to his foreign policy by directing more military forces and diplomatic efforts there, he has hit a snag: the leaders of Washington’s two biggest allies in Asia, the nations that should be the twin pillars of Mr. Obama’s policy – Japan and South Korea – are barely talking to one another.
And in large part that is because of a few dozen old Korean ladies like Ms. Kim and Ms. Kihl.
They were forcibly recruited by the Japanese army during the Second World War as sex slaves, and they are demanding an apology and compensation from the Japanese government. Tokyo insists it owes the so called “comfort women” nothing.
“Japan has leveled insults at them rather than offering an apology,” South Korean President Park Gyeun-hye told visiting US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month.
“I know Japan is an important country to cooperate with for peace and stability in Northeast Asia…but trust has not been established.”
Some people involved in the issue worry that as the handful of surviving victims reach the end of their lives, the time for a change of heart from Japan is running out. “And if they don’t resolve this, it will continue to weigh on our relationship” into the future, says Yoon Mee-hyang, an activist with the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.