By Zohra Abdullah
The comfort women issue has been the defining point of Japan-ROK relations since the 1990s. Cooperation on many issues, including regional security, tackling the threat from North Korea trade ties and improving people to people relations between the two countries, has been hindered due to the persistence of the issue. This, along with domestic political pressures from within both the countries has encouraged South Korean President Park Gyun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to come up with a final and irreversible agreement, which was signed on December 28, 2015.
During World War II, several women and girls in Japanese occupied territory were allegedly forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army. They were called “comfort women” and were abducted or lured with false job prospects, often at a very young age. In 1965, Japan and South Korea normalized relations through a Treaty of Basic Relations. This treaty relieves Japan of all legal responsibility but does not address the comfort women issue.
In 1993, it was a Japanese scholar who uncovered official documents indicating the military’s role in setting up comfort stations and forcibly recruiting women. On the other hand, the Japanese people still perceive themselves as victims of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and seek an apology from the US which is unlikely to be forthcoming.
Civil society groups in South Korea have been hosting weekly protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul since 1992. A bronze statue dedicated to the former comfort women was placed in front of the Japanese Embassy in 2011. This statue has symbolic significance for all victims of WWII. According to the December 28, 2015 agreement signed by the two countries, the Korean government has agreed to negotiate with the civil groups who have set up the statue, but the Japanese government has since eased their stance, perhaps not wanting to potentially disrupt the smooth implementation of the agreement.
The comfort women issue has been underplayed in Japanese textbooks while it invokes strong nationalist sentiments in South Korea, leading to a perception gap in public understanding. Due to this, Koreans do not understand why Japanese people don’t feel greater remorse and Japanese people do not understand why Koreans are not willing to put the issue to rest.
Responses to the agreement
Korean opposition to the agreement has focused on Japan’s refusal to accept legal responsibility. For the Japanese government, all WWII related claims were settled in 1965 when Japan and South Korea normalized relations. Japanese leaders have previously apologized on several occasions, none of which were considered adequate by South Korea. This has led to “apology fatigue” even among those with a more liberal understanding of the issue.
Abe and the post-war generation sentiment
With an aim to free future generations from the burden of having to continue to apologize, Abe’s statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII on August 15, 2015 was carefully worded to express remorse and regret but for his critics, fell short of an apology. He represents a popular sentiment among post war generations in Japan who acknowledge that they must learn from the lessons of past history but do not feel that they have to assume permanent responsibility for the actions of the Japanese military before they were even born. Abe’s objective has been to relieve Japan of an obligation to repeatedly apologize for its past, but his rhetoric has failed to convince critics of his sincerity when it comes to apologising for Japan’s war crimes. Despite Abe’s attempts to settle the issue, Japan remains under public pressure in Korea and China to not only acknowledge past misdeeds of Imperial Japan but to also accept legal responsibility for it. The latter outcome is unlike to materialise, so the issue will continue to stay alive.
Meanwhile in South Korea, the rise of a feminist movement has brought this issue into focus. Several of the former “comfort women” have come forward to share their accounts. Most of these women are in their late 80s, which means time is another factor in the resolution of the issue. However, most of these women have rejected the agreement, claiming it does not provide adequate justice. They had previously rejected the aid provided to them by the Asian Women’s Fund, criticizing the Japanese government for not providing the money directly and instead funding the organization through private donations. They have criticized the December 28, 2015 agreement for failing to provide monetary compensation as well as an unequivocal apology.
Internationally, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is from South Korea, has praised the agreement. The United States has also appreciated the agreement. However, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Hussein, has echoed the thoughts of many, criticising the agreement for not including the Comfort Women in the negotiation process.
Motivations behind the agreement
Gender and National Identities
Comfort women hailed from many countries, not just from Korea. If this was truly about justice for comfort women, the agreement would transcend nationalities. It is without doubt a politically motivated agreement aiming to settle the comfort woman issue between Korea and Japan so that cooperation on other issues is not disrupted. Even the opposition to the agreement is from within the narrow interests of only the Korean comfort women.
For South Korea, the comfort women issue is a matter of national pride. Historically, women and children are the most vulnerable in any armed conflict. The issue here is greater than the experience of South Korean comfort women under Japanese military rule. It cannot be expected to be resolved through a bilateral agreement between the two countries alone. South Korea also does not have any legal claims over Japan on this issue. Given Japan’s reluctance in revisiting the past, this agreement is the farthest Japan will go to appease the Korean public.
Geopolitical Situation in East Asia: Why Japan and Korea need to cooperate
As long as Japan-South Korea relations remain strained, China’s growing assertion in the East Asia region remains unchallenged. The growing military strength behind these adversarial countries makes it a volatile situation. Strained relations between the two leading democracies of East Asia would have consequences for the Unites States as well. As the United States’ leading allies in the the region, South Korea and Japan’s cooperation in the region is imperative for the US to protect its security interests. North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons poses another threat that needs trilateral cooperation.
Reversing the irreversible
The December 28, 2015 agreement was declared “final and irreversible”. However, that does not guarantee that the agreement will be permanent. The actual implementation of the agreement is set to take place in July 2016 and is at the risk of falling apart due to public pressure. If the agreement fails to be implemented, it is unlikely that Japan will offer yet another apology.
It is, therefore, imperative for all parties that this agreement goes through. The leaderships of the two countries are optimistic and are proceeding with formalities despite these pressures. It is unlikely that the issue will cease in public debate but it is also unlikely that the leadership will allow this pressure to impede the agreement either.
What the agreement has tried to achieve is improving diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea. While both leaders have domestic political motivations other than justice for the comfort women, it is important to not let this take away from the effectiveness of the agreement in delivering justice as well. The former comfort women are approaching their final years, and must be allowed adequate recognition of their suffering. Abe’s apology is being criticized for not accepting legal responsibility. Japan, however, is free from legal responsibility, having settled all war related disputes in 1965. Extending the criticism further would not only hinder diplomatic relations but also take away the last hope for any redressal for the comfort women as well.
For Japan, the comfort women are victims of history and Imperial Japan, not of modern day pacifist Japan. Japan itself has renounced war in its constitution and has been looking to play a more important role in contributing to promoting peace internationally, such as by contributing to UN peacekeeping forces. This vision of Japan contrasts with its past as an aggressive expansionist imperial power. For Japan to successfully balance the responsibility of its past with its vision of the future, it must continue to engage other countries which still hold it accountable through gestures of reconciliation, such as the December 28, 2015 agreement.