The comfort woman statue outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Photo: Asia Times / Andrew Salmon

Statues are much in the news lately. Across the West, many are tumbling, but in the East, a newly erected work of art is pouring new fuel on the ever-fiery flames of Japanese-Korean animosity.

In South Korea, statues of “comfort women” – who served in Japanese wartime military brothels, many under compulsion or coercion – are commonplace: They are seen on iconic mountaintops, in downtown shopping districts, at public transport stops – they have even taken up seats in buses.

Now a new one is winning attention for its creative, and arguably provocative, concept.

Established in a botanical garden in Pyeongchang, scene of 2018’s Winter Olympics, the creative work depicts a man who bears a striking resemblance to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on his hands and knees, bowing before a seated young comfort woman.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga spluttered at its mention in Tokyo on Tuesday. He told reporters that the statue was “unacceptable” and would “decisively affect” bilateral relations.

This is ludicrous talk.

The offending statue is owned by a private citizen in a private space. It is not an official project. South Korean is democratic, and artistic expression is, while not completely unfettered – pornography and pro-North Korean content are censored, for example – largely free.

Moreover, strident demands that national leaders must not be lampooned sounds like the kind of language that emanates from authoritarian regimes, not democratic polities.

One hopes it was also uninformed talk, for it is unclear how well briefed Suga was.

“While we have yet to confirm this, it would be unacceptable under international courtesy,” the cabinet secretary said.

South Korean media have confirmed, with photos, that the statue exists, while Seoul’s Foreign Ministry released a lukewarm statement on the importance of courtesy toward foreign leaders.

Still, one can sympathize with the uncontrollable jerks that Japanese officials’ knees suffer whenever South Korea is mentioned.

This is particularly so since 2017, when the current Moon Jae-in government took office.

History wars

While Japan was unquestionably the historical aggressor on the peninsula in the days of imperialism and the Pacific War, Tokyo has since offered multiple apologies, from emperors, prime ministers and cabinet secretaries on down. It has also paid hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to repair ties.

This writer knows of no other ex-colonial power that has been so apologetic to, or remunerative toward, an ex-colonial possession.

Still, in South Korea, repeated assertions of national victimhood are made with table-thumping passion and rarely questioned. Japanese apologies are roundly dismissed as “insincere.”

The years 1910-1945, the period when Japan controlled the peninsula, is painted in far darker hues than another recent historical tragedy, the Korean War. That was a more destructive affair in terms of both life and property, and one for which the instigator, North Korea, has never apologized or offered compensation.

The Holocaust does not feature on the Korean national curriculum, but that does not stop Koreans from comparing Japanese colonization – an exploitative and sometimes brutal, but hardly genocidal occupation – to the Nazis’ mass slaughter of Europe’s Jews.

Current Prime Minister Abe is widely despised as a right-wing militant nationalist and his grandfather was a war criminal noted for brutal activities in Japan’s Manchurian puppet state of Manchukuo during the Pacific War. But Abe himself, in recent years, has toned down his nationalism.

While he seeks to remove legal fetters on the Japan Self-Defense Forces, constitutional revision looks practically impossible and he has not visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine since 2013.

He has also pried open the Japanese economy to heretofore unprecedented levels for imported goods, labor and tourists, while also championing the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal after its abandonment by US President Donald Trump and signed another free-trade deal with the European Union.

These are the actions of a globalist, not a nationalist.

Granted, Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is a curious political beast. Though a grouping of right-wing elements, it encompasses a spectrum of views wide enough to keep true hard-right forces in check. Many Koreans, however, consider it to be hard right and revisionist.

Moon goes into battle

Moon hails from the center-left Democratic Party of Korea. Since taking office in 2017, he has prioritized relations with North Korea, with minimal success, but has managed the Covid-19 crisis adroitly.

He has also taken to putting the boot into Japan on every front.

In 2015, Abe and Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye signed a deal to end the comfort-women problem that has plagued bilateral ties since the 1990s. It included an apology from Abe and compensation. In return, Seoul authorities pledged to discuss the removal of a comfort-woman statue erected by activists on a public road outside the Japanese Embassy. (Not only did the original statue remain in situ, another statue appeared outside the Japanese Consulate in Busan.)

Although the majority of then-living comfort women accepted the 2015 deal, a vocal minority, affiliated to a non-governmental organization, resisted. Moon’s government, on coming to office, took the latter’s side and unilaterally quashed the deal, freezing the Japanese funds.

But Moon was just getting started. Citing historical sensitivities, Seoul ordered a Japanese destroyer invited to a Korean naval review to strike its “Rising Sun” ensign. (Despite that ensign having been aired in a previous Korean naval review, and despite China, the prime victim of Japan’s 1930s-40s militarism, raising no issue with it.) In a subsequent naval incident, a Korean destroyer on the high seas “painted” a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft with its target radar without explanation.

Most damagingly, Korean courts seized Japanese corporate assets in order to award damages to Koreans forced to labor in Japan in wartime. This, despite the fact that Seoul and Tokyo had signed a treaty in 1965 that included hundreds of millions of dollars in Japanese compensation after the payment for the laborers had been calculated to the last dollar.  

(Seoul, at the time, took the Japanese monies but did not award them to the victims; instead, it used the cash as startup capital for economic development.)

Last year, Tokyo demanded negotiations on the basis of the 1965 deal. Seoul refused. With two bilateral agreements – 2015 and 1965 – de facto overturned under Moon in just two years, Abe took offense.

Tokyo had previously had a habit of rolling with Seoul’s blows, but in 2019, it showed its teeth, slowing (but not halting) the export of three key chemicals used in South Korean semiconductor manufacturing. Then it removed Korea from a list of preferred trade partners.

Seoul responded in kind, and the Korean public boycotted Japanese products and visits to Japan.

Most recently, after April’s legislative election, Moon’s party took on, as a new lawmaker, the head of the very comfort-women NGO that had sabotaged two Japanese attempts to resolve the problem: the Asian Women’s Fund of the 1990s, and the Abe-Park 2015 agreement.

(One of the NGOs’ star comfort women has since acrimoniously broken ties with the group, and accused it of fomenting Korea-Japan animosities. The NGO also stands accused of financial malfeasance.)

Common ground

Yet remarkably, Japanese and South Koreans – when politics and history are taken off the table – have multiple commonalities and shared interests.

The two countries have similar lifestyles and enjoy each others’ cultures. BTS is huge in Japan; Japanese anime boasts legions of fans across Korea. Superb Korean restaurants in Tokyo are mirrored by fine Japanese restaurants in Seoul.

While their economies compete head to head in many sectors – autos, electronic devices, steel, petrochemicals – they are in other ways complementary. South Korea was until recently the No 2 source of tourists for Japan; Japanese components are critical elements in Korean supply chains.

Both are Northeast Asian liberal democracies facing off against authoritarian regimes in North Korea and China.

Both have (separate) US alliances underwriting their security. Washington has, for decades, been frustrated by a dearth of trilateral military cooperation that obviates economy of effort.

And both have attendant problems with those alliances. How to manage Trumpian demands for fivefold increases in stationed GIs’ cost-sharing burdens? How to balance strategic partnerships with Washington with economic ties to Beijing – the top trade partner for both Seoul and Tokyo?

In short, recognition of common interest and/or a combined voice on all these matters would assist both countries in multiple spheres: tourism, trade, diplomacy, strategy and politics.

Currently, though, nothing of the sort looks likely.

… uncommon emotions

Despite American pleas, Abe and Moon look too invested in enmity to reboot relations in the near term.

Some light glimmers over a distant horizon. Abe is likely to depart office in 2021; Moon exits his single-term presidency in 2022.

Meanwhile, the region looks set for major turmoil over the next two years. We may reasonably anticipate ongoing health, travel and trade fallout from Covid-19; a widening of the already gaping chasm dividing Beijing from Washington; and continued and reinforced regional power projection by Beijing.  

Given the motivating force of shared interest and the additional volume of combined voice, one may reasonably hope that governments in Seoul and Tokyo, after the departures of their current bosses, might mull stark realities, shelve shrill nationalisms and aim for a win-win.

If so, they could thaw current bilateral ice and heat up bilateral links – through the levels of pragmatic ties to friendly relations to possibly (gasp!) an alliance of some sort.

Alas, that is no sure thing. By all means, raise a glass of soju or sake in hope – but don’t bet your won or your yen on rationality trumping emotion.

On August 4, Korean courts are set to begin the liquidation of Japanese firms’ assets to pay the forced laborers. Tokyo has warned that is a red line.

In other words, things are going to get worse before they get better.

Andrew Salmon is Asia Times’ Seoul-based Northeast Asia editor.