An independent task force established to investigate the December 2015 “final and irreversible” deal reached between South Korea and Japan on the contentious issue of wartime “comfort women” reported problems in the pre-deal process, possibly paving the way for Seoul to demand a renegotiation or unilaterally nullify the agreement.
If so, it would not be the first time that Korea has abrogated moves by Japan to overcome the highly emotive issue.
“The agreement was finalized mostly based on government views without adequately taking into account the opinions of victims,” the 31-page report, produced by a task force commissioned by Seoul’s Foreign Ministry, stated according to Yonhap Newswire. It also said the deal was reached behind closed doors, rather than in public view.
The release of the high-profile report in a televised press briefing follows statements by South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who said the day prior to the report’s publication that Seoul would “keep all options open on the question of what to do with the agreement,” and would communicate with victims and their support groups.
But in Tokyo, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suda said in a press briefing that it was “extremely important that this agreement be steadily implemented.”
In fact, the majority of surviving Korean comfort women accepted the 2015 deal and agreed to accept Japanese governmental compensation that was paid in 2016. However, a vocal minority, with affiliated civic groups, has campaigned against it, dominating the debate and related media coverage, with the result that 70% of the South Korean public opposes the agreement, according to surveys.
The landmark December 2015 agreement was struck between the administrations of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then-president Park Geun-hye, with strong backing from Washington, which seeks better relations between the two East Asian democracies in the face of a rising China and a threatening North Korea.
But since the conservative Park was impeached in March, the liberal Moon Jae-in administration that succeeded her in office has launched a series of probes into her administration, and into that of her conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak.
The issue of comfort women – young women from Japan, Korea, China, Southeast Asia and elsewhere who staffed wartime brothels for Japanese troops during World War II – is perhaps the most contentious legacy of Japan’s militaristic past.
South Koreans believe that tens or hundreds of thousands of Korean women were “sex slaves” who were tricked, coerced or forced into Japanese service. Tokyo asserts that the brothels were in fact private concerns that serviced its military, but were not run by it. Estimates of the numbers of comfort women range from 20,000 to 400,000.
The issue of comfort women – young Asian women who staffed wartime brothels for Japanese troops during World War II – is perhaps the most contentious legacy of Japan’s militaristic past
While historians and civic groups dispute numbers and details, the issue is hugely emotive in South Korea. It has bedeviled diplomatic and political relations between it and Japan since the early 1990s, when surviving comfort women first began testifying about what happened. Suspicion or antagonism toward Japan has had a collateral impact on economic and defense ties.
The 2015 Abe-Park agreement was engineered to end this situation – at least on the government level. Under the deal, Abe delivered a formal apology that was widely covered by global media, and agreed to pay 1 billion yen (US$8.8 million) in compensation. For its part, the South Korean government would discuss the removal of a statue of a comfort woman raised by a civic group outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, and refrain from raising comfort women in international forums.
Although the deal offered activists what they had long demanded – a prime-ministerial apology and official compensation – Korean activists and some former comfort women were angry that they had not been consulted, and claimed that Abe – who did not personally meet any of the women – was “insincere,“ or that his apology was not legally binding.
Some demanded higher compensation. Twelve women filed a lawsuit against the deal in September 2016. These campaigns were widely reported and gained public traction.
Even so, in December last year, the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, a body created by the South Korean government to manage the 1 billion yen paid by Japan, announced that 34 of the 46 ex-comfort women then living had received compensation, or had stated their intention to accept it.
Meanwhile, despite Japan’s apology and payment, the statue remained outside the embassy. In January 2016, Japan recalled its ambassador, citing bad faith, after a second comfort-woman statue was erected by activists outside the Japanese Consulate in Busan, South Korea’s second city. Still, Japan refrained from nullifying the 2015 agreement.
If the Moon administration demands a renegotiation, or kills the deal, it will not be the first time an agreement between the two governments has foundered on the rocks of the comfort-women saga.
The two countries agreed in 1965 to normalize diplomatic relations. That agreement was accompanied by US$800 million in Japanese donations and soft loans that were designed to be final compensation for the colonization of Korea (1910-1945). However, Seoul spent the monies on economic projects, rather than compensation for colonial-era victims.
When the comfort-women issue first arose in the early 1990s, after South Korean democratization in 1987, renewed calls were made for compensation of individual comfort women. In response, Tokyo, together with private businesses, raised the “Asian Women’s Fund” to pay compensation to survivors, along with a signed letter of apology from Japan’s prime minister.
Several Korean women accepted this compensation, but civic groups claimed that the funds, as they had been donated by the private sector, were not official.
According to a 2007 US Congressional Research Service study, former comfort women who accepted the Japanese money were vilified by civic groups and denied compensation from Seoul. Those actions in effect killed the agreement in South Korea.