By Bruce Fan
Recently, South Korea and Japan have managed to resolve the decades-long issue of “comfort women.” To elaborate, “comfort women” refers to the sexual slavery that the Japanese military imposed upon the women of foreign countries like Korea, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, and more during WWII to help “revitalize” Japanese soldiers. This issue is controversial because Japan and South Korea and other victimized countries disagree over the history and various narratives associated with the term. For instance, South Korean activists claim there to be up to 200,000 Korean victims who endured as “comfort women” or sexual slaves for Japanese soldiers during WWII, while Japan and some scholars have at times claimed there to be only up to 20,000 victims. It should be stated that this agreement resolving this controversial topic is highly important between the two nations, often being a point of conflict as the two allies have criticized each other in various parts of international society. Specifically, South Korea criticizes Japan for its lack of a direct apology and reconciliation to former “comfort women”, while Japan maintains that it has done enough to compensate and apologize to such victims. Indeed, there is controversy even with the accord; some South Korean activists and former “women” are protesting it, calling it unfair and humiliating.
First to discuss the terms of agreement between the two nations, Japan will supply 1 billion Yen (or 8.3 million dollars) to support surviving comfort women and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will apologize for the women’s treatment while South Korea will consider this issue resolved. By apologizing, Prime Minister Abe is going further than any previous Japanese government; his apology was “expressed both in a statement by his foreign minister and in a telephone call with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.” In exchange for these terms, South Korea says that it will consider the issue “irreversibly resolved,” meaning that the two governments will refrain from criticizing and blaming each other in international society. Once again the significance of this deal is highlighted by Shinzo Abe’s statement that he is glad that “we did our duty for the current generation by reaching this final and irreversible resolution before the end of the 70th year since the war.”
This deal, however, does not come without criticism. Specifically an advocacy group, The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery, and other protesters are calling the deal a “diplomatic humiliation”. First off, the two former comfort women who represent the group argue that they and other fellow survivors were not even consulted by the South Korean government before it accepted the deal on their behalf. Specifically, “the group said Seoul ‘gave a bushel and only got a peck [of returns in the agreement];”’ they are most likely referring to how South Korea has allowed Japan to avoid the full brunt of responsibility for creating “comfort women” in this treaty. In regards to Japan’s terms in the accord, the former “comfort women” are enraged at a multitude of terms that all revolve around the fact that the Japanese government still hasn’t directly acknowledged that the Japanese government itself was the one that actively initiated the systematic sexual slavery, as its claim of just being simply involved.
To begin, the Japanese government has still refused to directly compensate victims in this treaty as the 1 billion Yen is being directed toward a fund as a humanitarian gesture toward the victims not as a direct apology. (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/26/former-sex-slaves-reject-japan-south-koreas-comfort-women-accord) Japan has attempted creating funds for sex slaves prior, “but many surviving sex slaves refused money unless it came directly from the Japanese government…[as a result] the fund was disbanded in 2007.” (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/26/former-sex-slaves-reject-japan-south-koreas-comfort-women-accord) As so put by CNN, this lack of direct compensation by Japan has prompted “activists and former comfort women to say Japanese leaders were avoiding officially acknowledging what happened.” (http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/28/asia/south-korea-japan-comfort-women/index.html)
Next, the advocacy group and its two former comfort women Lee Ok-sun and Kang Il-chul take issue with apology made by the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Specifically, the two former comfort women and eight other fellow survivors, call the apology too indirect and demand a face-to-face apology. Specifically what these women and other activists want is for Japan to give “a sincere apology like the one that Willy Brandt [Germany’s ex-Chancellor] gave at the Holocaust memorial,” the women state that they want to be healed like the Holocaust survivors said they were after Willy Brandt’s formal apology. With this in mind, such an event is unlikely to happen. This lack of a direct apology by Japan’s Prime Minister is interpreted once again as Japan’s avoidance of history; this avoidance leads many to think that Japan is simply waiting for former “comfort women” to die alongside their narratives as only 46 survivors remain of the 238 women in South Korea who came forward in the early 1990s. All in all, such revisions in the accord is important as it clarifies the history and narratives of comfort women who were exploited not by sex traffickers or some various third party but by the Japanese government itself and puts the full blame on the Japanese government.
To add further controversy, there is the issue of the statue symbolizing comfort women placed in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Japan insists that part of the conditions of the accord was that the South Korean government remove this statue placed in front of its embassy in Seoul. However, South Korean protesters have “objected to Seoul’s promise that it would consider removing the statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul that commemorates the women’s suffering.” For some context, the statue was placed in 2011 and is simply that of a barefoot teenage girl meant to symbolize the tales of “comfort women” under the Japanese imperial army. To Japan, this statue’s removal is important as they believe it to be a symbol of South Korea’s unwillingness to settle the issue; thus it believes that South Korea removing the statue will demonstrate South Korea finally resolving the issue. In brief, this statue is another term of the agreement between South Korea and Japan that is arousing protests by South Korean activists.
To recap, the agreement between Japan and South Korea on the historic “comfort women” issue has been met with controversy. This controversy can be shown by the complaints lodged by Lee Ok-Sun and Kang Il-chul against the terms. As stated earlier, these two former “comfort women” and South Korean activists still interpret the treaty as signifying Japan’s continued dodging of its historical role through Shinzo Abe’s avoidance of a direct apology to the women himself and Japan’s creation of a humanitarian fund for the survivors instead of a real admission of legal responsibility. With this being said however, there are other former “comfort women” who are accepting of deal, specifically telling Korean media that “they would accept the compromise.” As this controversy continues, the significance of the treaty cannot be left unnoticed. Historical differences have often translated to strains in the relations between Japan and South Korea. In one instance, such “strains between Japan and South Korea have prevented them from signing an agreement to share sensitive military information.” By resolving this issue at least between the two governments, this accord will allow two of America’s most important allies in East Asia to cooperate and work better together to better stabilize the regional balance of power in East Asia amidst a developing China. Thus such an accord is important not only in regards to the two nations themselves but also for determining the balance of power in East Asia and across the globe.
- CNN: (http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/28/asia/south-korea-japan-comfort-women/index.html)
- Reuters: (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-japan-comfortwomen-idUSKBN0UD0I520151230)
- Wall Street Journal: (http://www.wsj.com/articles/japan-south-korea-reach-comfort-women-agreement-1451286347)
- The Guardian: (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/26/former-sex-slaves-reject-japan-south-koreas-comfort-women-accord)
Image by Joonyoung Kim