With South Korean President Park Geun-hye impeached on charges of corruption and her presidency in tatters, candidates for the office and other political opponents are feeding like jackals on her perceived missteps. Among these is the rashly-settled agreement between Japan and South Korea on the so-called “comfort women” issue.
The ripples from this are spreading wider and wider, seemingly on a near-daily basis. First, Seoul has declined to participate with Japan and the U.S. in what was to have been the first anti-submarine training involving all three countries aimed at early detection of North Korean submarines. Tokyo has expertise in this area, and Seoul has long been worried about Pyongyang’s ability to conduct threatening underwater activities.
Subsequently, and in response to a South Korean civic group placing a commemorative statue to the tragedy near the Japanese consulate in Busan – this is in addition to the one facing the Japanese embassy in Seoul – Japan has recalled its ambassador to Seoul and its consul-general to Busan. Diplomatic relations are souring at a time when close cooperation is most needed.
Further, legislators in Gyeonggi province are fundraising for the placement of a memorial statue on an islet in the Liancourt Rocks group in the East Sea/Sea of Japan. Known as Dokdo to the Koreans who control it and as Takeshima to the Japanese who claim it, the islet group is roughly midway between the two countries. As a result of actions by the South Korean lawmakers, this feud, which is never far below the diplomatic surface, has once again reached a simmer.
Another recent development that is equally disturbing is the rather tone-deaf and culturally insensitive remark by long-time Korea observer Aidan Foster-Carter.
Echoing the heavy-handed and patently self-serving remarks of U.S. social worker-turned-diplomat Wendy Sherman of not quite two ago, Foster-Carter stated in a recent article for NK News that “our main concern here is when extraneous ancient [italics added for emphasis] animosities torpedo unity.”
He then concluded his piece with the belief that “Europe offers a precedent” for settling the unfinished business of World War II, admonishing both Japan and Korea with: “Sadly, East Asia’s elites lack that vision or courage.”
A FALSE COMPARISON
There are many points of his essay that require addressing. To begin, his likening of how Germany atoned for its war crimes during World War II with Japan’s response is a false analogy. It is more of a contrast than a comparison.
While Germany and France indeed got over three wars in 75 years, the conflict between Japan and Korea goes back more than 400 years to the 1590s, when Japan first attempted to conquer the peninsula. The most recent Japanese aggression began in the 1890s with a series of ever increasingly unequal treaties with Korea that, by stages, resulted in Korea first becoming a protectorate of Japan in 1905 and then being brazenly annexed in 1910.
Visits honoring such war criminals are seen as Japan thumbing its nose at the rest of Northeast Asia
During that annexation – for 35 years until the end of World War II – Japan made concerted efforts to wipe out all aspects of Korean society, mandating the use of the Japanese language and the assigning of Japanese names. The intent was the utter destruction of the Korean culture and the forced assimilation of Korea into the Japanese Empire – such events did not occur when Germany briefly occupied France.
Germany also did not conscript tens of thousands of – perhaps as many as 200,000 all told – Korean girls and young women as Japan did to serve as sexual slaves for Imperial Japanese soldiers. True enough, Germany is directly responsible for the death of some 6 million Jews, but the country has profoundly and repeatedly apologized and shown sincere remorse. In point of fact, a recent speech by a right-wing politician in the German state of Thuringia renouncing a memorial to the Holocaust has caused national outrage and fury. Germany continues to forthrightly face its history.
In stark contrast, the current Japanese administration attempts with weasel words, obfuscation, and outright denial to whitewash its shameful past. Worse, even as Japanese Prime Minister Abe speaks of “remorse” – he studiously avoids the word “apology” – officials of his government visit the Yasukuni Shrine. Dozens of Class B and C war criminals from World War II were surreptitiously enshrined there between 1959 and 1967, and 14 Class A war criminals were secretively enshrined in 1978. Visits honoring such war criminals are seen as Japan thumbing its nose at the rest of Northeast Asia.
In attempting to link Germany’s rapprochement with France to the present relationship between Japan and Korea, Foster-Carter’s remarks expose a Eurocentric perspective that simply does not work in Asia.
UNDERSTANDING THE CRIME
Consider the society and culture in which these crimes were committed. Strongly Confucian despite the confluences and influences of other beliefs, the women had no recourse but to endure the suffering. And when the war was over, coming forth to lay claim against their former assaulters – well, the idea is preposterous on its face.
Japan is still to make sincere and permanent amends
Korea itself was not a party to the San Francisco Treaty of 1951 that formally ended World War II. And when Japan and Korea “normalized” their relations in 1965 through the Basic Treaty on Relations Between Japan and the Republic of Korea, the subject of sex slaves was not discussed, in large part because the former victims had not come forward.
However, after a few courageous victims later stepped out of the shadows in which they had been hiding their shame, a 1996 resolution by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights advocated that Japan acknowledge legal responsibility and make financial reparations to the surviving sex slaves. Japan refused, claiming that all World War II issues had been settled under the 1965 treaty.
Thus, when Japan and Korea dashed headlong – at the prodding of the U.S. – to resolve this issue in the twilight hours of 2015, no one consulted beforehand with the few remaining victims. The surviving sex slaves are aged and weary, but a handful are joining the clamor to renegotiate the flawed agreement. The issue will not die until a settlement that is acceptable to the victims themselves is reached, one that adequately addresses the lost honor and shattered lives of a great many women who were forced to suffer what no one should ever have to experience.
THE “INCONVENIENCE” OF NOT COOPERATING
Without a doubt, that this issue remains unresolved is very inconvenient – and it certainly is not optimal with regard to regional security against a bombastic North Korea. Admittedly, it is to the advantage of both Japan and Korea to be done with this – and the U.S. would most assuredly benefit by that as well.
The current Japanese administration attempts, with weasel words, obfuscation, and outright denial to whitewash its ignominious past
However, moving forward with multinational cooperation against Pyongyang is not at all possible until past business is completely laid to rest. Full resolution of Imperial Japan’s infamous sex slaves problem has yet to be achieved.
One might be tempted to make a case that South Koreans need to let the issue die. That is easy to say when it was not one’s own dignity that was repeatedly violated and it was not one’s own future that was forever ruined. History – exacerbated by recent behavior – puts the onus squarely on Japan. It still has to make sincere and permanent amends.
The undermining of apologies made by previous administrations needs to cease, the use of weasel words needs to cease, and officials visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in temporal proximity to discussions with South Korea needs to cease. Better yet, the enshrinement of war criminals ought to be undone, as some in Japan have already considered.
As for the involvement of outsiders in this, while it is indeed proper for them to be concerned with their own countries’ national interests, doing so at the expense of their allies is short-sighted, counter-productive for the larger aim, and appallingly arrogant and hubristic. We should know better.
Featured image: Wikimedia archives
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