Image: comfort woman by theogeo on 2007-11-12 14:37:18
Last week’s agreement between South Korea and Japan on compensating survivors of the Comfort Women system has been hailed as a diplomatic triumph, a way to mend Seoul-Tokyo ties while addressing the claims of the surviving victims.
Doubts have since emerged as to whether it will succeed in doing either, however.
In the aftermath of the deal it has become evident that Seoul did not consult with the surviving Comfort Women, who are incensed that the deal declares the issue of their sexual enslavement resolved and does not stipulate Japan’s legal responsibility. U.S. pressure on the South to resolve the issue has also been criticized, complicating Washington’s goal: a closer Seoul-Tokyo relationship to counter North Korea and China.
What’s more, the North can milk discontent over the issue while highlighting its own victims of Japanese colonization.
SLAVES TO HISTORY
Once they arrived at ‘comfort stations,’ they say they were incarcerated, raped and beaten throughout the day, even by the physicians who examined them
During World War II the Empire of Japan systematically enslaved young women and girls – some say there may have been hundreds of thousands of them – particularly (but not exclusively) from Asian countries it occupied. Designed to prevent the spread of venereal diseases among Japanese troops and the rape of women – and increased local hostility – in territories colonized by Japan during the war, this program’s victims have testified that they were abducted by the Japanese military or lured with promises of paid work. Once they arrived at “comfort stations” dispersed throughout the empire they say they were incarcerated, raped and beaten throughout the day, even by the physicians who examined them.
Approximately three-quarters of the “Comfort Women” – a Japanese euphemism for prostitute – conscripted in comfort stations are believed to have died, with many of the survivors left infertile.
The issue has long been one of the most heated points of disagreement between Japan and its former colonial subjects in the two Koreas. South Korea, like Japan a close post-war ally of the United States, has repeatedly pushed for Japan’s government to take responsibility for the Comfort Women both legally and morally, while North Korea has made the sex slavery issue a central feature of its anti-Japanese propaganda. A number of apologies and admissions have come out of the Japanese side over the years – including former prime ministers Kiichi Miyazawa in 1992 and Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 – but many other Japanese politicians, as well as scholars and activists have questioned the number of those enslaved, or even denied that the women were anything other than willing prostitutes.
Still, there have been attempts at resolving the issue in the past: The 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea that normalized Tokyo-Seoul relations included $800 million in grants or low-interest loans to the South as compensation for Japanese war crimes.
However, these funds were not directed to the victims of colonization, but channeled by the Seoul government into its economic development plans. As such, the Comfort Women have continually called for compensation, while Tokyo has insisted that the matter was resolved by the 1965 treaty.
Furthermore, the 1965 agreement did not include North Korea. Pyongyang made its own attempt at resolution in 2002 through the summit between Kim Jong Il and then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. That meeting ended with the two parties issuing their Pyongyang Declaration, which aimed at normalization of the diplomatic relations between the two.
However, the agreement was short-lived, as Kim’s admission during the summit that North Korea had abducted a number of Japanese civilians sparked outrage among the Japanese public and accusations of additional abductions. Continued failure to resolve that issue has halted additional efforts at Japan-North Korea normalization and, as a result, resolution of North Korea’s Comfort Women claims.
“For North Korea, compensation for the colonization of Japan is part of the normalization of their relationship. North Korea will likely (seek to) include an apology in the preamble of the agreement,” Kim Min-cheol, researcher at the Center for Historical Truth and Justice in Seoul, told NK News.
The methods the compensation would likely be the same as the 1965 treaty, a legal expert said.
“While the treaty in 1965 between Japan and South Korea didn’t include the Comfort Women issue (by name), since Japan (only) officially admitted the issue in (the 1995) Murayama Statement, the Pyongyang Declaration mentioned the statement,” Kim Chang-rok, professor of Kyungpook National University Law School, told NK News.
North Korea has repeatedly called for a multilateral solution to the Comfort Women issue, with its Foreign Ministry spokesperson calling for a “whole-Chosun” solution – “Chosun” being the North’s name for Korea.
Since the deal was reached, the North has evidently thrown the gate open even wider, stating this the comfort stations are the scenes of international war crimes involving not just the two Koreas, but other Asian and European women who were victimized there.
“The crime related to the sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese Army is neither an issue which can be settled with the help of control or mediation by a specified country nor an issue that can be settled by coaxing the half-witted party with a few pennies,” the spokesperson of the ministry told Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) on January 1.
This is not a perspective that appears to be widely shared outside of the North, however.
“Of course it requires international solidarity as it is an international problem. However, it is not wrong for an individual country to negotiate with Japan,” Kim Chang-rok said.
North Korea also criticized the U.S. for pushing Seoul to resolve the issue with Japan, seeking to bridge the differences with its two key military allies in East Asia.
“The U.S. has egged (South) Korea on to ‘strike’ the deal over the ‘issue of comfort girls for the Imperial Japanese Army’ in order to keep Japan and south Korea in triangular alliance for aggression being spurred by it,” spokesperson of Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry was quoted by North’s Korean Central News Agency.
Robert Kelly, international relations professor at Pusan National University, though, said it wasn’t just the U.S., or at least not just its government, that wanted the issue taken care of.
“Every Western analyst, journalist, academic, government or military figure I know with some involvement in this issue thought a resolution was critical,” he said. “There’s been a torrent of articles, think-tank reports, policy briefs, books and so on regarding this issue. Even (the president) got involved too. Everyone could see that the real winners of Japan-Korea estrangement are North Korea and China. As China continues its ascent and North Korea’s nuke program expands, the unrelenting drumbeat of foreigners at every level saying ‘fix this’ must have been exhausting.”
However, Kelly said that, with the South declaring the issue resolved, Japan is the big winner from the agreement, to such an extent that he is “surprised” that Seoul accepted the deal.
“The reaction of civil society groups and the media commentariat in the coming weeks will be crucial,” he said. “The leftist groups and papers will come out against it, of course. Whether the ROKG can move larger public opinion, to get the deal to ‘stick,’ is questionable at best. President Park herself may have to give a major address in which she openly pleads for Koreans to accept that this was the best deal they could get.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came back to power in late 2012 at the head of a coalition that includes those who have downplayed Japan’s wartime-era crimes. Abe himself has a history of doing so, including questioning whether the Comfort Women were coerced.
But Yuki Tatsumi of the Stimson Center Washington said there was little reason to suspect that Abe will face a revolt from such factions. In August, Abe faced no such resistance when he declared, on the 70th anniversary of World War II’s end, that Japan had inflicted “immeasurable damage and suffering” through its actions.
“If the conservatives’ reaction to Abe’s announcement on the 70th anniversary of World War II is any guide, he would not have that much of a problem,” she said. Abe would be less well-positioned to make any such admissions or compensation in exchange for normalization with the North, though, due to the issue that sank the 2002 agreement.
“Japanese will be far less receptive if North Korea pushes for this kind of approach, especially when there has been so little progress on the abduction issue despite the agreement last year,” Tatsumi said.
However the Japanese public sees the issue, many South Koreans are no more receptive to the deal than the North.
Demonstrations were taking place in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul even a week after the deal, and a former Comfort Woman has been filmed lashing out at Seoul’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs for not consulting with the victims before reaching the agreement and accusing the government of “trying to kill us twice.” The political opposition has seized on this discontent.
“Despite the treaty in 1965, (South Korea’s) Supreme Court recognized that individuals’ right of claim has not dissipated and the Constitutional Court clarified the government’s duty to make an effort to protect the individuals’ right of claim … the Park’s administration suddenly abolished this policy, which buried numerous endeavors,” head of the opposition party Moon Jae-in said on Monday.
Kim, the legal scholar, echoed this argument.
“The most problematic point of this agreement is the failure to solve the controversy of interpretation of the 1965 treaty,” he said. Furthermore, there are other victims from the Japanese colonial period who have not had their claims addressed.
“This agreement is only valid for the Comfort Women issue. (Korean) victims from the atomic bomb, Koreans forced to move to Sakhalin and forced labor are separate issues from the Comfort Women. The South Korean government has declared that these were not covered by the treaty in 1965, therefore, it is possible to demand for Japan’s responsibility. The unsolved issues are the next administration’s share.”
Kim said that, as the deal was not one approved by the South Korean National Assembly, its “binding power is not eternal.”
“Any kind of agreement can be cancelled or revised,” he said.
Van Jackson of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies said that this agreement is an example of one that could lead to unsatisfying outcomes.
“In this case, elites made an agreement that didn’t satisfy the core constituencies mobilized around the issue,” he said, specifying NGOs representing the Comfort Women and hard-liners in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party as those constituencies. “So elites show ‘leadership’ that gets U.S. opinion off their backs, yet have already generated backlash because the agreement didn’t bring along the constituencies most important for ensuring that the terms of the agreement could be implemented.
“It’s a major, major mistake to interpret this agreement as reflecting a change in the structure of Japan-ROK relations.”
Last week’s agreement between South Korea and Japan on compensating survivors of the Comfort Women system has been hailed as a diplomatic triumph, a way to mend Seoul-Tokyo ties while addressing the claims of the surviving victims.Doubts have since emerged as to whether it will succeed in doing either, however.In the aftermath of the deal it has become evident that Seoul did not consult
About the Authors
Ha-young Choi was an NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She studied Korean history, mainly focusing on modern Korean history at Korea University. Follow her on twitter @Hy_Choi0826