The ‘comfort women’ issue is an unusual thread uniting China, South Korea, North Korea, and other countries against Japan, which also presents challenges to American policy in the region. It is not just an international problem, as it is also interlinked with the domestic policy of both South Korea and Japan.
“A wrong knot has to be untied. Japan should accept the truth and make a heartfelt apology to victims,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on January 10 referring to the 2015 agreement on the ‘comfort women’ issue reached by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached on charges of corruption and abusing her powers in December 2016.
The ‘comfort women’ is a euphemism for women who were forced into sexual slavery in Japanese military brothels during World War II. “We were often beaten, threatened and attacked with knives. We were 11, 12, 13, or 14 years old and we didn’t believe anyone would save us from the hell. Many girls committed suicide. They drowned or hung themselves.” says Lee Ok-seon, who was 14 years old when she was kidnapped and trafficked to a ‘comfort station’ in China only to be raped on a daily basis by Japanese soldiers.
The agreement reached two years ago was applauded by the international community and described as “final and irreversible” at the time. Japan offered an apology to women who were forced to work in wartime brothels for the Japanese military from the start of the occupation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910 until the end of the war in 1945 as well as over 8 million USD in payment to the victims. In return, South Korea agreed not to criticize Japan on the matter again. Both parties believed that the deal would enable the two countries to work towards a more cooperative relationship. However, almost two years later, in June 2017, the issue of ‘comfort women’ which had been debated for years was brought up again as the current President of South Korea Moon Jae-in ordered a panel to investigate the 2015 agreement and previous government’s actions. Consequently South Korean’s foreign minister Kang Kyung-hwa described the 2015 deal as a failure which did not meet the needs of victims who demanded also legal compensation from Japan.
Editorials in South Korean newspapers described the review process and the decision to uphold the deal as inevitable – the process was important for healing both for the few surviving victims (currently there are only 31 former ‘comfort women’ living in South Korea) and more broadly for society still recovering from Park Geun-hye’s presidency. Tokyo, however, warned that attempting to revise the deal would be “unacceptable” and would make the relationship between the two countries “unmanageable”, rejecting any additional measures over the issue.
Later, the South Korean President declared that South Korea would not scrap the agreement but still insisted that the 2015 agreement could not solve the ‘comfort women’ issue as it had failed to take the victims into account, therefore Seoul wanted additional measures from Japan, including a “heartfelt apology”. Japan again criticized South Korea over the matter, saying the dispute has been settled and that Seoul should faithfully stick to the terms of the deal.
The Japanese media generally expressed support for the prime minister’s stance, some reporting a “growing sense of distrust toward South Korea”, others pointing out that souring relations on the issue of ‘comfort women’ could have a serious knock-on effect on the united front against the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. Perhaps sensing an opportunity to drive a wedge between Seoul and Tokyo, North Korea’s state media has been strongly critical of the ‘comfort women’ agreement ever since it was signed. China also stands in lockstep with both Koreas on the issue as it called on Japan to “address the concerns of its Asian neighbours and the international community, and deal with them responsibly”. Furthermore, the ‘comfort women’ of the Philippines, who generally have been less vocal in demanding compensation and redress from the Japanese government, found voice and urged President Rodrigo Duterte to make “a concrete and clear position” on the issue.
The ‘comfort women’ issue is an unusual thread uniting China, South Korea, North Korea, and other countries against Japan, which also presents challenges to American policy in the region as Japan and South Korea are its primary allies in Asia.
Japan has been criticised for its wartime past, inability to face its actions during the World War II and unwillingness to “solve the wartime problems”. Many times, Tokyo called on removing the statues commemorating Korean ‘comfort women’ near the Japanese embassy in Seoul and the Japanese consulate in Busan city. Japan’s fixation on the statues arguably increased its significance and South Koreans opposed relocating the statues. Dozens of similar statues have been erected throughout South Korea and around the world. One of them stands in St. Mary’s Square in San Francisco and Osaka as a sister city of San Francisco, views it as a matter which is “in conflict with Japan’s stance” and “extremely regrettable”. The mayor of Osaka even said he would scrap the sisterhood of the two cities.
Nevertheless, despite the disputes between South Korea and Japan, Moon Jae-in pledged to work in “even closer cooperation” with regional partners and allies including Japan, the US, and China in order to peacefully resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also reiterated that South Korea is Japan’s “most important neighbour, which shares strategic interests”. Whereas Japanese say that no Japanese leader has ever made so many concessions on the ‘comfort women’ issue and that Japan already did enough, Koreans argue that it has taken Japan much longer to face up to the atrocities committed by its military forces in the early decades of the last century than Germany, for example, and that even now there is a vocal part of Japanese society that denies that sexual slavery or incidents like the Nanjing Massacre ever occurred. Nevertheless, despite the recent cracks, the building blocks for improved South Korea-Japan relations still remain in place.
The ‘comfort women’ issue is not just international problem, it is also interlinked with the domestic policy of both South Korea and Japan. In South Korea, the review of the 2015 agreement is a part of an ongoing struggle in South Korea’s society to restore transparency and democratic procedures after Park Geun-hye’s presidency. Moon Jae-in’s government is trying to strike a balance between regional security and promoting reform and transparency at home. In Japan on the other hand, the current Japanese Prime Minister is supported by the far-right nationalists, who are unwilling to apologize for the Japan’s wartime legacy or even deny the terrible atrocities their country committed during the first fifty years of the last century.