Comfort women statues like this pair in a Shanghai park have been raised globally by South Korean civic groups. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele

SEOUL – As one of the most emotive legacies of the Pacific War raised its head in a Seoul court, Japan-South Korea relations have once again been placed on a collision course with no off-ramp in sight.

A Seoul court on January 8 ordered the Japanese government to pay compensation of almost $100,000 each to 12 “comfort women.” Judgment in a separate case, bought by 20 comfort women, was meant to be reached on January 13 but has been delayed.

On the surface, it may appear to be a simple case of victimhood and long-delayed justice – particularly given that similar suits filed in Japanese courts in the 1990s and 2000s had failed.

But there is nuance. The situation pits Korea’s simmering historical grievances against Japan’s insistence that the court judgments breach prior bilateral agreements and ignore compensation previously paid.

Seoul has tried to calm matters.

In an unusual move, South Korean President Moon Jae-in met Japan’s departing ambassador Koji Tomita on Thursday, suggesting it was time for relations to shift into a future-oriented gear. And South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa implored her Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi, not to react excessively in a 20-minute phone call. 

But Seoul’s ambassador to Tokyo was called in for a talking to after the judgment, and all indications are that Tokyo’s patience is fraying. According to Kyodo News on Thursday, Tokyo is mulling various responses, including delaying the dispatch of a new ambassador or even taking the case to the International Court of Justice.  

“The ruling is absolutely unthinkable in terms of international law and bilateral relations and has resulted in an abnormal situation,” said Japan’s Press Secretary Tomoyuki Yoshida.

This issue makes waves far beyond academia and courts.

While Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula ended more than 75 years ago, historical disputes are at the forefront of bilateral relations, casting long shadows over strategic, political and economic ties.

The intractable situation exasperates US policymakers.  South Korea and Japan are democracies with separate US alliances facing off against North Korea and China. But their historical squabbles obviate tri-lateralism.

The recent Korean court cases are largely symbolic. No South Korean court can force Japanese governmental compliance, and only one of the women who was part of the 12-person lawsuit remains alive. However, it is a humiliation for Japan.

Citing separation of political and judicial powers, Seoul can reasonably argue non-responsibility.

However, the key drivers of the comfort women issue, including the two lawsuits, are a pair of NGOs that lobby for justice for comfort women and which have shot down Japan’s past efforts to atone and compensate.

And there is direct link between the activists and the government. A former head of the most active NGO was last year granted a National Assembly seat by Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea.

A boy (looks at a statue of a teenage girl symbolizing "comfort women" on a bus running through downtown Seoul on August 14, 2017.Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-Je
A boy looks at a statue of a teenage girl symbolizing comfort women on a bus running through Seoul in August, 2017. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-Je

Who is right? Who is wrong?

The historical remembrance-apologies-compensation brouhaha is a tangled web.

There is no doubt that Korea was the victim of Japanese imperialism, and Korean activists have raised historical grievances in domestic and global forums

Many Koreans, and overseas Koreans, point to the refusal by some in the Japanese government and on the right to accept any responsibility for colonial-era atrocities, or even accept that they occurred. Politicians continue to pay respects at Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are enshrined. Textbooks largely whitewash Japan’s wartime brutalities.

In today’s post-colonial world, these are powerful messages. In the court of international public opinion, Korea is winning. But Japan, too, has a case – albeit an under-reported and less emotive one.

Scores of apologies – from emperors, prime ministers and cabinet  secretaries – have been  delivered. Compensation has been offered by Tokyo – only to be refused or frozen. And agreements between the governments have been ignored or abrogated by South Korea’s courts and government.  

Neither side accepts nuances surrounding the history of the issue.

Many Koreans insist that the victims of the comfort women system – a network of military brothels deployed across the Japanese imperium – were predominantly Korean. They assert that they were not prostitutes, but were innocents coerced, tricked or forced into the brothels, making them “sex slaves.”

Moreover, as the exclusive clients of the comfort stations were Japanese troops, Koreans demand that Tokyo bears governmental responsibility.

Conversely, many Japanese insist that a considerable proportion of comfort women were Japanese, and that the comfort women were paid prostitutes on contracts, not sex slaves. Moreover, they stress that private brothel operators – including Koreans – were responsible for recruiting the girls, thus absolving Imperial forces of moral or financial obligation.

Then there is the issue of veracity.

Koreans insist that oral and written testimony delivered by surviving comfort women since the early 1990s, when a newly democratized Korean society was reassessing historical issues, proves their position.

Japanese shoot back that Allied documentation from the war years on comfort women makes virtually no mention of forced service, and point to shifting narratives among some survivors.

South Korean protesters tear a huge Japanese flag during a rally near the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2019. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je

Japan strikes back

Japan largely endured Korea’s jabs from the early 1990s, when the comfort woman issue first entered the international limelight after advocacy by Japanese and Korean human rights organizations, until 2018.

That year, a Korean court seized assets of Japanese companies invested in Korea to compensate wartime forced laborers. A furious Tokyo insisted that the judgment undercut a 1965 treaty under which Japan had paid hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and aid to settle colonial-era issues – including forced labor.

Exasperated, Tokyo slowed exports of three key chemicals used by Korea’s semiconductor industry and downgraded Korea’s favored-nation trade status.

Seoul responded in kind, while furious citizens and NGOs demonstrated and launched boycotts of Japanese products. Koreans saw the villain as conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, an internationalist who sought to improve Japan’s image globally, but who was painted as an ultra-nationalist, particularly given the role his grandfather, who was accused of war crimes, played out in the wartime exploitation of Manchuria.

Certainly, Abe was not well disposed towards Moon – for the forced labor brouhaha had been predated by a comfort woman imbroglio in which Abe alleged bad faith.

In 2015, a bilateral agreement was reached between Abe and then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Under it, Abe’s foreign minister offered Abe’s “most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.”

Financial compensation of 1 billion yen (approximately $8.3 million) was paid by Tokyo to surviving comfort women. Both governments agreed that the issue was “finally and irreversibly” solved. In return, Seoul undertook to  negotiate with a civic group to remove a comfort woman statue standing outside Tokyo’s embassy in Seoul.

Tokyo’s apology and the compensation were accepted by 34 out of 45 living victims. However, the remainder, led by a high-profile NGO, furiously opposed the deal on the grounds that the victims had not been consulted. Meanwhile, not only had the Seoul statue not been moved, another one had been erected outside the Japanese consulate in Busan.

After the scandal-struck Park administration was replaced by the current Moon administration in 2017, Seoul repudiated the deal and froze the Japanese compensation funds, infuriating Tokyo.

There were yet more issues. In 2018, Tokyo angrily alleged that a South Korean destroyer had illuminated a Japanese aircraft with its target radar. And in 2019, Seoul demanded a Japanese vessel at a South Korean naval review either strike its “Rising Sun” ensign – which Koreans consider a symbol of oppression – or depart. It departed.

All this generated anger among Japan’s populace.

“A lot of the frustration that I see in Japan was directed more at the Japanese government than at the Korean side, especially the conservatives,” said Jason Morgan, an American professor who teaches history and international relations at Japan’s Reitaku University. “They could not understand why Japan had to keep taking punches. “

Politicians reacted. In 2019, Abe’s Foreign Affairs Minister Taro Kono interrupted the South Korean ambassador, telling him that Seoul’s position on the forced labor issues was “totally unacceptable” and “extremely impertinent.”

A video clip of the scene went viral across Japan. “I think people were happy that someone was speaking up,” said Morgan. 

A picture of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe behind a statue of a teenage girl symbolizing comfort women. Photo: Jung Yeon-je/AFP

Who is really pushing the issue?

While the target of the lawsuits is the Japanese government, the Korean government can deny involvement. A firewall exists between the judiciary and the administration and unlike some nations, there is no mechanism for political leadership to overrule or ameliorate a court decision on diplomatic grounds.

However, sitting governments can, in fact, influence the judiciary through the Ministry of Justice. Two justice ministers resigned last year in a battle against the prosecution. But equally, The recent cases prove that the judiciary can push back.

But arguably, it is neither the government nor courts that have been the most influential players in the comfort women issue. That honor goes to civic groups.

Korean NGOs, over the years, have been tremendously successful at raising awareness of the comfort women and other Japanese wartime atrocities globally.

They have taken survivors on global speaking tours, and have assisted ethnic Koreans living in Australia, Germany and the United States to raise comfort women statues in those countries – to the embarrassment of Japan.

The recent court cases involve two high-profile NGOs.

The 12 cases were sponsored by Naneun-ae Jib (“House of Sharing”) and the 20-woman case is being assisted by Jeongeuiyeon (“The Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan”) – formerly Jeongdaehyeop, ( “The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan”), founded in 1990.

The Korean Council takes a particularly strong stance. In the early 1990s, it opposed the “Asia Women’s Fund,” a Japanese joint government-business initiative that offered compensation to surviving comfort women and a signed letter of apology from the sitting Japanese prime minister. The Korean Council’s intervention – which insisted that it should be the Japanese government rather than private business that paid compensation – killed that deal.

The group would subsequently become the key opponent of the 2015 Abe-Park deal, which was subsequently quashed by the Moon government. But it ran into legal flak last year when a high-profile comfort woman, Lee Yong-soo, publicly broke with it.

Lee alleged financial misdemeanors at the NGO, said that it had taken advantage of elderly survivors, and accused it of fomenting hatred among Korean and Japanese youth. (School children were regular attendees at the weekly demonstrations organized by the Korean Council outside Seoul’s Japanese embassy.)

The Korean Council was affiliated with a shelter for surviving comfort women, Pyeongwha-ae Jib (“House of Peace”). The manager of the house committed suicide last June amid investigations into Lee’s allegations.

A key figure in the controversy is Yoon Mee-hyang, who headed the Korean Council and who has been, since the early 1990s, probably the most active figure in comfort women advocacy.  Yoon, though investigated by both prosecutors and right-wing media during the 2020 scandal, was not found guilty of any illegality.

What is clear, however, is Yoon’s links to the Moon administration.  

By the time last year’s scandal broke, Yoon had left the NGO to take up a new position as a sitting lawmaker of Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea. It granted her a proportional representation seat after 2020’s April general election.

As an advocate of victimhood, Yoon is well positioned.

“The Moon government has prioritized the rights of victims,” a presidential advisor told Asia Times. Relatedly, it has made the eradication of “deep-seated evils” a principle of its policy.

This principle extends beyond crimes committed solely by Imperial Japan. Moon, a former human rights lawyer, has formally apologized for atrocities committed by authoritarian South Korean governments of yore – such as the pre-Korean War Jeju Island Massacre, in which thousands of civilians were killed during a counter-insurgency campaign against leftist guerillas.

Two former conservative presidents are also serving jail terms for corruption and abuse of power committed in-office.

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

What next?

Experts who would prefer to see bilateral amity are at their wits’ end.

“The Japanese keep trying to do something [to resolve historical issues] but Korean society doesn’t feel it’s enough or appropriate,” said Lim Eun-jung, an international relations scholar at Korea’s Kongju National University. “But there are a lot of wounded hearts and we Koreans pursue justice over international politics.”

There is precious little common ground for Seoul and Tokyo to stand upon.

“One of the major priorities for the Japanese government in foreign policy since World War II is respect for international law, and Japan felt shocked and humiliated,” Lim said. “Our counter-argument is that general trends are changing and this was a serious crime against humanity.”

So while Japan cites binding agreements, Korean courts cite the primacy of supra-national humanitarian principles over local law. This is frustrating for many Japanese, even those who admire Koreana such as cuisine, music, film and TV dramas, Morgan said.

“People are saying, well, something bad was done and we apologized and gave money and now it has come back,” he said. “They are thinking that the court system in Korea is not entirely on the level. Why do they want to keep re-litigating this?” 

Lim, a Japan specialist, sees little hope of a breakthrough.

“There is no hope for restoring relations, I cannot be that optimistic,” she said. “Political leaders need to take risks and face challenges, but they don’t seem to have a strong will to break through this situation.”

“I just don’t see it changing unless there is a grand reset with Biden coming in,” added Morgan. “But short term, I can’t see how this can get solved.”