SEOUL – On January 8, a South Korean court found on behalf of 12 former “comfort women” and demanded the Japanese state pay reparations. A related decision is anticipated in March when another suit brought by a separate group of 20 ex-comfort women is to be judged.
Given that the Pacific War ended in 1945, this is very belated justice. But many might consider that, regardless of the passage of time, the judgment was sound and an overdue reckoning for a historical crime.
It is not the only such judgment reached under South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration. In 2018, a South Korean court seized the assets of Japanese firms invested in Korea in order to award damages to wartime forced laborers.
However, diplomatic issues hang over both judicial decisions.
The comfort women decision was made despite a “final and irreversible” Seoul-Tokyo deal signed in 2015, under which Japan had both apologized and given compensation to surviving comfort women.
And the asset seizures breached the terms of a Seoul-Tokyo treaty signed in 1965, under which Japan had given hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and aids and under which the compensation paid to wartime forced laborers had been calculated down to the dollar
In both cases, the compensation offered by Tokyo had been handed over to Seoul to disburse. In neither case did Seoul act in good faith.
As regards the 2015 deal, the Moon government, unhappy with the agreement signed under the previous administration, demanded a renegotiation and a fresh apology, then froze the Japanese funds. (At least, it froze the proportion of funds that had not been handed to living comfort women.)
As per the 1965 deal, Seoul gave none of the Japanese money to forced laborers. Instead, it spent the cash on economic development projects.
Righting past wrongs
The Moon administration has made the “rooting out of deep-seated evils” a core policy. Before entering politics, Moon was a human rights lawyer and a close aide told Asia Times that the president instinctively feels for victims.
Certainly, the vicissitudes of Korea’s 20th-century history – colonialism, division, insurgencies, war, military juntas, at-all-costs economic development, rapacious business practices – have generated many victims.
The Moon administration, citizens’ groups and courts have aimed not just at Japanese militarists of the 1930s and 40s, but at conservative ex-presidents and at serving business tycoons.
So, who is facing what punishment? It’s a long list.
Last week, a 20-year sentence for impeached ex-president Park Geun-hye (2013-2017), on an abuse of power and corruption rap was upheld by the Supreme Court, ending her appeal process.
Since 2016, a see-saw legal-battle has been raging between state prosecutors and Samsung’s legal team over company head Lee Jae-yong. Lee was found guilty of colluding with Park, but served less than a year before being released with a suspended sentence. His fate is expected to be sealed by the courts in the weeks ahead.
Last October, ex-president Lee Myung-bak (in power: 2008-2013) had his 15-year jail term on corruption charges, applied in 2018, extended to 17 years after his appeal failed.
And last November, ex-general and ex-president Chun Do-hwan was given an eight month suspended sentence for defaming a deceased priest. The two had engaged in dispute over details of the 1980 Gwangju massacre, in which Chun ordered paratroopers to suppress demonstrations in the city, resulting in the killing of hundreds.
Chun had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996, but that was overturned on the grounds of national unity via presidential pardon in 1997.
Many will look upon this with satisfaction. The wrongs of yore are being righted at long last by a relentless administration which will not let prior agreements, or passage of time, prevent justice from being done.
But one villain – arguably the greatest of all – is prominently absent from the rogues’ gallery.
What about North Korea?
None of the actors above – not the ex-presidents, nor even the Imperial Japanese Army – unleashed as much death and destruction upon the peninsula as did Kim Il Sung.
The late founding father of North Korea, with his ploy to end national division via a 1950 invasion, ignited an apocalyptic conflict. The three-year Korean War did more damage to Korea’s physical structures, and devoured more Korean lives, than 35 years of Japanese colonialism.
Granted, today’s destitute North Korea is in no position to pay any remuneration. Still, there is some irony in the Moon administration’s unwillingness to seek even an acknowledgement of responsibility from North Korea. (Extra-territoriality is no issue given recent court cases against Japan.)
Of course, justice looks distant given that North Korea does not accept any responsibility for the invasion, blaming instead the United States. But a long-ago war is not the only issue.
Inside North Korea, lack of freedoms – of association, of expression, of movement, of religion, of legal representation, etc – continue under Kim’s grandson, the state’s present leader.
Moreover, Kim Jong Un oversees a massive state security architecture under which the principle of due process is alien and under which a vast, shadowy body undertakes a hideous catalog of human rights abuses.
Then there are the multiple deadly attacks – commando raids, bombings, terrorist attacks, ship sinkings, artillery strikes, landmine ambushes – the North has unleashed upon the South in the years since the war “ended” in 1953.
How might all this be judged if the two Koreas somehow reunify?
The reunification jackpot
In some reunification scenarios, such as the collapse of the North Korean state due to internal revolution, or military conflict, perpetrators of abuse could be dragged into court by a victorious South Korea.
But in the preferred scenario – peaceful, gradual unification starting with a form of confederation – things are vaguer. Would governments, courts and civic groups in the South be willing to ignore decades of dictatorship?
The obvious bridge over this gap is blanket amnesties for the Kims, their close elites and the various agencies that maintain internal security via labor camps, political reeducation camps, “total control” camps and torture chambers.
It would not be a perfect solution but it would clear the way for the priceless benefits of reunification.
For South Korea these would include: Closure on an existential military threat; the resumption of rail, road and overland pipeline and energy connections to the Eurasian continent; the gain of 21 million new citizens; the commercial opportunities implicit in a market isolated from globalism; and construction opportunities in a country whose infrastructure requires a massive rebuild.
And to return to reality from fantasy: Carefully courting North Korea, the Moon administration is doing all it can not to irk Pyongyang. It swallows endless rhetorical insults and has recently forbidden activists from sending balloons with anti-regime messaging over the DMZ.
Still, these policies are unlikely to cloud the cold, clear views of the pragmatists striding through North Korea’s corridors of power.
The power of precedent
A problem – if that is the right word – of democracies is that governments and policies change. In South Korea, this is particularly acute. Not only do domestic policies shift, but diplomatic agreements made in good faith – even agreements that have held for over half a century – can be unilaterally nullified.
For the North, this presents huge risks to potential reunification. Who among regime power players – the Kims, the elite, the generals and the State Security Bureau officials – could support unification under a democratic aegis when they know amnesties can be overturned? Who among them could sleep soundly in their beds?
Southern cheerleaders of recent court decisions cite righting historical wrongs. Under this logic, legal and diplomatic agreements are overruled by universal principles of humanitarianism. Incidentally, that is the position that Korean courts have taken for their judgments on the anti-Tokyo lawsuits.
But legal judgments create precedents. And the principles of humanitarianism hangs heavy over North Korea’s leadership. Few ruling dynasties in today’s world are drenched in so much blood.
Given this, the leftist-nationalists in South Korea who most fervently seek peaceful reunification should not assume that the crimes done by the North Korean state for 78 years and counting can be indefinitely swept under the carpet.
Thus a supreme irony is at play. Many of those in the South pursuing justice for bad actors of the past may be entirely unaware that the precedents they are setting with recent judgments could very well snuff out their cherished dream of reunification with the North.