International and domestic pressures will be crucial to how the recent accord between Japan and South Korea on Japan’s use of ‘comfort women’ during the Second World War plays out, writes KERRI NG.
On 28 December 2015, the South Korean and Japanese governments announced an agreement on the controversial comfort women issue that has plagued bilateral relations for almost three decades.
As many have pointed out, hammering out and announcing this deal in the closing days of the fiftieth anniversary of Korea–Japan relations symbolically confirms the intentions of the Park and Abe administrations to resolve the issue ‘finally and irreversibly’. It has been welcomed in both countries and in the international community as a step in the right direction.
But the long-term impact of the agreement will depend on what happens next. On the one hand, successful implementation of the accord hangs on whether Seoul can convince the surviving comfort women and their supporting organisations to cooperate in implementing the foundation that Tokyo has promised to fund.
On the other hand, international pressures may help make this accord the first of many steps towards a marked improvement in bilateral relations. In the long run, however, genuine reconciliation will require greater mutual understanding of each other’s domestic and international constraints in using the issue politically.
Compromise and backlash
Both sides appear to have obtained significant concessions. On the Japanese side, the clear statement that ‘Prime Minister Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who [suffered immensely] as comfort women’ contrasts with his pre-2014 position of wishing to review the wording of the Kono and Murayama Statements.
It also reiterates that ‘the Government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities’ arising from ‘an involvement of Japanese military authorities at the time’ and commits state funding to the establishment of a foundation for the support of the comfort women.
On the South Korean side, Seoul is to look into ‘addressing’ the issue of the comfort women statue outside the Japanese Embassy and to cooperate in establishing the support foundation. Both sides also pledge to ‘refrain from accusing or criticising each other regarding the issue in the international community’.
That the agreement has received both praise and criticism within Japan and South Korea highlights how both sides compromised in order to reach this landmark agreement.
However, negative reactions from key constituencies in both countries point to underlying issues that have the potential to derail the implementation of the agreement. Nationalists in Japan have criticised their leader for disrespecting the war dead by implying that they were sexual slavers, and have called on him to ‘reverse this disgraceful act’.
They have also questioned whether Seoul has made ‘any meaningful pledges’, since the South Korean government has only agreed to ‘consult’ on the issue of the statue with the relevant civic groups.
Backlash appears to be even stronger on the Korean side, with not only the comfort women and relevant civic groups but also the broader Korean public criticising both the tenets of the agreement and the way in which it was negotiated. In particular, the implication that Seoul would look into relocating the comfort women statue has drawn ire and a pledge by the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan (Jeongdaehyeop) to have more statues erected.
The Japanese nationalists are a vocal but clear minority. However, honouring the agreement while also making concessions to this minority requires a delicate balancing act. The international community has tended to blame Japan—particularly Abe—for the tensions that have strained bilateral relations over the comfort women and other history-related issues. The Japanese Prime Minister is widely perceived to be a revisionist and his visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and previous statements that seem to downplay the country’s wrongdoing have often incited intense backlash in South Korea and many other countries.
However, seen from the context of the domestic debate within Japan over what is truth and what is fiction about the comfort women, it can be argued that the timing and wording of Abe’s statements is walking a fine line between acknowledging government responsibility and responding to Japanese ultranationalists. The latter—who include a number of serving ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians—demand full denial of the accusations that the women were coerced into service by the Japanese military , which they argue are based on Yoshida Seiji’s false declarations during the 1980s and 1990s. Although Japanese historians soon discredited many of his claims, the Asahi newspaper, which heavily publicised his stories, did not retract them until 2014, and a vocal minority within Japan continues to argue that Yoshida’s lies gave the country a negative reputation that it does not deserve.
One LDP lawmaker has already been forced to retract yet another statement that the comfort women were ‘professional prostitutes’, but it remains to be seen whether Tokyo can maintain this line, especially if no progress in made in relocating the statue.
The more difficult issue to resolve is likely to be on the South Korean side. Jeongdaehyeop has indicated that it does not intend to cooperate with Seoul over the establishment of the support foundation to be funded by Tokyo, as per the agreement.
Even if both governments are sincere, if the Park administration is unable to convince the comfort women and their supporters to cooperate in implementing the measures that Tokyo has agreed to, the Korean public is unlikely to consider the issue ‘finally and irreversibly’ resolved.
In the end, the long-term outcome of the recent comfort women agreement between South Korea and Japan will be measured by whether genuine reconciliation can be reached.
Furthermore, it seems clear that the comfort women statue will not be moved from its location anytime soon. Should the Korean public continue to criticise Japan’s stance without compromising on its own demands, yet another cycle of recrimination between the two countries seems inevitable.
In other words, although the two countries have pledged to ‘refrain from accusing or criticising each other regarding this issue in the international community’ domestic tensions are likely to persist, with potentially negative consequences.
On the other hand, other international pressures could enable Seoul and Tokyo to overcome these domestic challenges and further improve bilateral relations. The strategic importance of cooperation between South Korea and Japan is evident in their coordinated response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test. In fact, the agreement was strongly encouraged—and key initial meetings were even facilitated—by the United States, which wants better cooperation between its two major East Asian allies in the light of assertive actions by both North Korea and China in recent years.
These international pressures may encourage the resumption of previously suspended frameworks, such as the intelligence-sharing agreement that was left in limbo in 2012. If such agreements lead to other positive developments—such as the joint detection and successful containment of a threat—it may be possible for the two governments to use such incidents to cultivate a more positive image of each other, leading the way to genuine compromise over history in the future.
In the end, the long-term outcome of the recent comfort women agreement between South Korea and Japan will be measured by whether genuine reconciliation can be reached. This requires constituencies in both countries to compromise on strongly held but problematic attitudes about the issue.
In the short- and medium-term, cooperation over security issues may enable Seoul and Tokyo to improve relations further even in the face of domestic opposition. But if the momentum toward improved relations falters because they are unable to implement the recent agreement, then there is always the danger that political elites in either country may find it expedient to return to the comfort women issue in domestic politics.
Comfort woman statue. The Korean Council for Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan (Jeongdaehyeop) wants to have more such statues erected. YunHo Lee, Flickr.