A statue symbolizing former South Korean 'comfort women' is seen during an anti-Japan rally in Seoul, on March 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji

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Japan thought it finally had a deal with South Korea on the ‘comfort women’ issue in 2015, with Tokyo apologizing (again) and making an US$8.8 million redress payment. It should have known better.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has declared the deal flawed and in need of (unspecified) changes. Recent reports indicate that while he may not scrap the agreement, he does not consider the matter resolved either.

The Japanese are frustrated, as usual, and the Americans ought to be as well. The US hopes that if the Koreans blow off enough steam they will eventually look more kindly on the Japanese. After that, real three-way US-ROK-Japan cooperation (if not an actual alliance) will happen.

This indulgent, long view of the Korea-Japan relationship is becoming tiresome and dangerous, however, given the possibility of war with a nuclear-armed North Korea and the presence of an aggressive China seeking to dominate northeast Asia.

Further thumbing Japan’s eye, Korean citizen groups have erected statues to the comfort women outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul and Japan’s consulate in Busan. Statues and memorials have been erected in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other places in the United States.

Fair enough. But there was plenty of misery to go around in the 20th Century and the Koreans did not corner the market in suffering. Perhaps the British Far East Prisoners of War Association might erect a statue of British POWs outside the South Korean Embassy in London – one memorializing the brutality meted out in Japanese prison camps by Korean guards during World War II. Prisoner accounts frequently give special mention to ‘the Koreans’ as being even crueler than Japanese captors, which would be no small feat.

And what about the ROK government kicking in a million dollars to the comfort women fund on behalf of the Korean soldiers in the Imperial Japanese Army who presumably made use of those women’s services?

There was plenty of misery to go around in the 20th Century and the Koreans did not corner the market in suffering

There’s also a spot waiting outside the South Korean Embassy in Hanoi for a memorial commemorating abuse and murder of Vietnamese civilians by ROK troops in Vietnam in the 1960s – not least in the Binh Tai massacre of 1968. Brutal treatment of captured combatants was a poorly kept secret in Vietnam. One American officer who sought to verify ROK Marines were correctly treating prisoners of war was advised: “We don’t have any f—ing prisoners.”

The Japanese have not helped themselves on the comfort women matter, granted. While Japan writ large has apologized and tried to make amends, there’s a lingering sense that part of Japan’s ruling class maintained a lofty indifference. One notes Japanese officialdom’s unguarded comments and stubborn refusal for many years to concede any Japanese wrongdoing.

Excuses ranged from “they were all volunteers or prostitutes” to the hair-splitting argument that there is no evidence of Japanese military involvement in the comfort women system – as if that excused any abuses. Even though the Japanese burned incriminating documents as the war came to a close, there is indeed plenty of evidence to be found. Dig a bit in Japan’s entertainment business today and you’ll also still find deception, coercion, and violence – just as in the comfort women system.

While the US government largely stays above the fray (not without reason), certain US politicians and activists loudly castigate the Japanese. Wielding the self-righteousness cudgel is tricky, though. After all, the American and allied occupation forces in post-war Japan themselves took advantage of something that resembled a ‘comfort women’ scheme. And it wasn’t entirely staffed by volunteers.

Postwar Japan was a place in which people could and did starve to death. The foreign correspondent Richard Hughes described postwar Tokyo as “a hostile city then singularly deficient in respectable employment for young women.” Granted, there’s coercion and then there’s coercion.

A statue symbolizing former South Korean ‘comfort women’ is seen during an anti-Japan rally in Seoul, on March 1, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Kim Hong-Ji

China is predictably egging on the Koreans and anyone who will listen over the whole issue, eager to magnify any evidence of Japanese devilry.
There’s no doubt a Mandarin word for chutzpah. Perhaps the PRC should replace Mao Zedong’s portrait at Tiananmen Square with Sun Yat-sen’s and put up its own statue to Mao’s 50 million victims – racked up in peacetime and good weather.

What’s the point of all this? Simply that self-righteousness and resentment are a shaky foundation for a foreign policy.

This will become a political issue. Washington insisting that South Korea stop wallowing in anti-Japanese resentment is reasonable

People can’t – and shouldn’t – forget the past. But if resentment were a productive way to direct a nation’s foreign affairs, the Balkans, not Disneyland, would be the happiest place on earth.

President Moon is trying to have it both ways – calling for “future0-oriented” cooperation with Japan, while savaging the Japanese over the comfort women. The Japanese are used to this and don’t complain much. They just seethe inwardly.

But Moon is also trying to have it both ways with the Americans. That’s riskier. Truculence towards the Japanese puts him on thin ice with the US public, and even with South Korea’s friends in the US government and military.

The Americans have been trying for years to have the Koreans cooperate with the Japanese – without much success. There’s a practical reason for this. Real ROK-Japanese-US military cooperation will greatly bolster defense and deterrence in northeast Asia.

South Korea’s behavior ultimately undermines American (and ROK and Japanese) national security. This will become a political issue. Washington insisting that South Korea stop wallowing in anti-Japanese resentment is reasonable. The US brought about and continues to underwrite ROK independence (both from North Korea and China) – and may be called upon to do so again.

One hopes to hear Mr. Trump tell President Moon: “Yeah, we get it. But we need you to do certain things if you expect Americans to die for you – or to risk San Francisco for Seoul. It’s your choice and we love you, but you can’t have both.”

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Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo with more than 20 years' experience in Japan and elsewhere in Asia as a US diplomat, business executive, and US Marine Corps officer.

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