Six decades since the end of World War II and despite several changes in world politics, the issue of “comfort women” continues to haunt Japan’s relations with its neighbour, South Korea. The Korean people are unable to forget the atrocities committed by the Japanese military during the long colonial rule from 1910-1945 over the entire Korean peninsula. In particular, what hurts the Korean people most is that many Korean women, a euphemistic expression for sex slaves called as “comfort women”, were forced to work as prostitutes by Japan’s Imperial armed forces during World War II. Japan has refused to pay individual compensation for the wrongs committed.
During his visit to Japan on December 18, 2011, the South Korean President Lee Myung-bak urged Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko to take a pro-active approach to resolving the thorny issue of compensation to the “comfort women”. This visit for discussing bilateral issues was the first since June 2009 during the administration of Prime Minister Aso Taro; although Lee had attended multilateral gatherings in Japan since then. Lee was expected to undertake the state visit in early 2011 when Kan Naoto was the prime minister but the visit was delayed as Kan resigned in August 2011. Another reason that is cited for Lee raising the “comfort women” issue was because of his weakening grip on power; he decided to display a tough stance towards Japan on an emotional topic to avoid further domestic criticism of his government.
Addressing the Korean Residents Union in Osaka, Lee said “if Japan resolves the issue while the former ‘comfort women’ are still alive, the resolution will be extremely useful for the two countries to establish future-oriented relations.” South Korean government has taken the position that if Japan cannot resolve this issue, Japan will be responsible for it remaining unresolved for all times to come. Even a South Korean constitutional court exhorted the government in August 2011 to negotiate with Japan on the issue of individual persons’ rights to claim compensation and said inaction of the government was unconstitutional because it violated the human rights of the “comfort women”. Japan claims to have made all efforts to investigate the past documents and testimonies since 1991 and has published a report detailing these. The report claims that no evidence was found that the Japanese army forcibly seized women, though Japanese army’s engagement could not be denied. Interestingly, Lee did not directly mention this issue during his two previous meetings with Noda in September and October 2011.
Successive Japanese governments, including Noda this time, have repeated Japan’s often-stated position that the issue was resolved in 1965 when the two countries normalized their diplomatic relations. Japan argues that in that agreement, the issue of rights of compensation was included and a lump sum of money paid to South Korea. According to Noda, Japan’s “legal stance has been already decided” and the issue been “settled”.
According to historians, up to 200,000 females, mostly Koreans, were forced into sexual slavery at frontline Japanese brothels during the war. Although a total of 234 former “comfort women” were registered with the South Korean government, only 63 alive today and most are in their 80s and 90s; 16 died in 2010. Since 1992, they have joined in weekly protests in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul since 1992. The 1,000th weekly protest was held on December 14, 2011. A statue depicting a young “comfort woman” was installed near the Japanese embassy in 2011, prompting embassy officials to express their concern regarding its presence to the South Korean government officials. The statue, raised with the help of donations worth approximately $32,000, will become a permanent protest site. Prime Minister Noda told President Lee that it was “regrettable” and asked him “to remove the statue immediately”. Seoul refused.
With no positive response from Japan thus far, South Korea took up the issue at the Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs) of the UN General Assembly in New York on October 11, 2011, though Japan informally asked Seoul not to do so. While South Korea did not name Japan in its initial speech, it criticized Japan explicitly following Japan’s rebuttal.
During a visit to Seoul in early October 2011, Japan’s ruling party policy chief Maehara Seiji suggested to Kim Sung-hwan, South Korea’s minister of foreign affairs and trade, that Japan may come up with a compromise regarding Seoul’s demand for compensation for the Korean sex slaves on humanitarian grounds, while categorically repeating Japan’s official stance that the issue has been settled and that Japanese government’s view remains unchanged.
At times, Japan has showed signs of repentance, but repentance without appropriate actions will not soothe the hurt feelings of the surviving “comfort women”. During the administration of Murayama Tomiichi in 1993, Kono Yohei, then Chief Cabinet Secretary, expressed Japan’s apology and remorse from a moral viewpoint. He had then said, “The Japanese army during the war deeply hurt the honor and dignity of many women”. Based on this statement, the Japanese government and the private sector set up the Asian Women’s Fund in 1995 in order to carry out the “atonement project” and pay out condolence money to former comfort women. Besides generous voluntary subscriptions from Japanese nationals, the campaign received extraordinary supports from the business community led by the Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic Organisations) and the labour world represented by the Rengo (the National Federation of Labour Unions), in particular the Ichiro (All Japan Prefectural and Municipal Workers’ Union). But many comfort women rejected the money which was offered as a gesture of atonement. The Fund was dissolved in 2007 after being criticized as an attempt by the government to avoid the responsibility of state redress.
Both Japan and South Korea are negotiating an economic partnership agreement before President Lee’s term expires in February 2013. But Seoul is cautious and the negotiations have remained suspended since 2004. They failed to agree on when to restart the talks. It has now been agreed to have bureau chief-level talks to discuss conditions for resuming negotiations at a later date. Both need one another and neither can do without the other. While Seoul is obstinate on the sex slave issue and Japan remains inflexible, Tokyo is seeking Seoul’s cooperation in resolving the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea.
Despite close economic ties, certain historical irritants have always threatened to derail the relationships between the two countries. During the visit of Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba to Seoul in October 2011, Japan hoped that Gemba’s meeting with his counterpart Kim Sung-hwan would ease bilateral strains caused by territorial dispute over the Takeshima islets, known as Dokdo in Korean. But the leaders failed to make progress in their talks.
Gemba and Kim also could not agree on how Japan will hand over ancient Korean royal archives presently at the Imperial Royal Palace, known as the Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty, to South Korea. Both countries also have disagreements on the need to build future-oriented relations and work together for a resumption of stalled six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear development program. Indeed, Japan-South Korea relations were relatively stable after the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took power in 2009 after dethroning the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), but relations deteriorated after Kan Naoto succeeded Hatoyama Yukio.
In the meantime, Korean experts have been exhorting the government to stick to clear and consistent diplomatic principles. They opine that South Korea’s diplomacy is facing a major test as resolving a set of long-standing issues with Japan and China are crucial for Seoul in terms of economic and security cooperation.1 On the other hand, Prof. Chung Jin-young of Kyunghee University is of the opinion that the issue of “comfort women” is a long-standing issue that cannot be resolved immediately. According to him, Seoul should make more efforts to reach a resolution.2 Yet, another professor at Inha University stressed that “Seoul should capitalize on its network of countries with which it shares common values of democracy and market economy and make best of its ‘soft power’ so that it can make coordinated, effective responses to future diplomatic challenges”.3 Because of the emotive nature of the issue, the Japanese government needs to carefully handle this issue, taking into consideration the actions taken by the successive administrations of Japan and more importantly the sensitivities of the Korean victims and people.