‘God is in the details’: Japan-Korea Comfort Women Agreement

Future of the watershed deal remains to be seen for the implementation of agreed-upon details will not be easy

Written by Mikyoung Kim | Published: January 6, 2016 3:04:48 pm
A statue of a girl that represents the sexual victims by the Japanese military is seen in front of Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea, December 28, 2015. One test of the commitment by Japan and South Korea to resolve the "comfort women" issue may be the fate of a statue in front of Tokyo's embassy in Seoul. The bronze of a barefoot teenage girl in a traditional hanbok dress, sitting on a chair with fists clenched on her lap and an empty chair beside her, has become a symbol of "comfort women", as those who were forced to work at Japan's wartime military brothels are euphemistically known.  REUTERS/Ahn Eun-na/News1  ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. A statue of a girl that represents the sexual victims by the Japanese military is seen in front of Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea (REUTERS/Ahn Eun-na/News1)

The Korea-Japan agreement over ‘comfort women’ issue on December 28, 2015, was one of the ‘unthinkable.’ Korea had few incentives to give away the agenda over which it could exercise the moral authority of victimhood. Japan was also not shy about expressing its contempt and frustration with the dogmatic neighbor which remained critical of Tokyo’s handling of past wrongs. The affairs pertaining to the 35 years of colonial rule contributed to the 70 years of discord.

A careful look at those seemingly ‘unthinkable’ moments denies abrupt and chaotic progression of events. Most of us, the laymen observers, are kept in the dark of what is going on behind the scenes. Needless to say, information classified as secrets has its functions. The Japan-Korea deal over ‘comfort women’ was no exception to having portentous precursors.

The primary pusher of the ‘comfort women’ agreement was the Obama administration. With China rising in the global scenes, the U.S. could no longer afford its two major allies in East Asia contending over the past issues. The ‘comfort women’ issue was the most powerful and poignant symbol of unbridled expansionism, brutal exploitation of women and violation of human rights. The region known for dynamic economy, cultural vivacity and growing military prowess is still wrangling with past issues greatly undermining the spirit of co-prosperity and peaceful co-existence.

It is in the U.S. interest to mediate between Korea and Japan for its ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy and power rebalancing in the region. Washington has been pressuring both Japan and Korea to make mutual concessions over the lingering history problems. Obama’s message was loud and clear: shake it off and move onward.

Japan responded quickly and decisively. During his Capital Hill speech in April 2015, Mr. Abe made a pledge that he will continue the conciliatory policy vis-à-vis its former victim countries in Asia. The Japanese leader kept his promise of inheriting the stance of appeasement adopted by the Kono and Murayama administrations. He extended apologies and expressed remorse over the past wrongs during the 70th anniversary statement of Japan’s defeat in 1945.

The ball was now in Korea’s court. The current Park Geun-hye administration has been swinging between Beijing and Washington since her term began in 2013. On some occasions, such tactic was positively evaluated from the middle power perspective. At other times, it came across as too shrewd of a survival and success formula.

Madame Park, initially known for her anti-Japanese orientation, decided to cut a deal with Tokyo on ‘comfort women’ before the 50th anniversary of Korea-Japan Normalization Treaty ended. December 28, the day of bilateral agreement, was the last working day in 2015 for both Korea and Japan.

While Mr. Abe is enjoying the rosy review from the agreement, the Park administration is drawing fire from various corners on the domestic turf. The surviving comfort women, the total number of 46 at the average age of 89, do not contain their anger because they were excluded from the negotiation process. The amount of reparation, roughly $180,000 per person, is also regarded too miniscule of a compensation given the nature and duration of pain and suffering of the victims.

The real hot potato is the ROK government’s pledge to ‘strive to solve this issue [the relocation of the comfort women statue built in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul] in an appropriate manner.’ This is not going to be an easy task. The related NGOs are vocal against the bilateral agreement, and they organize the Wednesday rally before the statue. The Seoul government’s efforts are bound to fall short in persuading the civilian sector activists.

The domestic backlash will concur the Park administration a hefty price. Her ruling legacy will be questioned for the last-minute trade-off between national honor and mediocre financial gains. The incumbent party is expected to suffer from repercussions in the upcoming general elections this April.

The general atmosphere in Japan is that of relief. The irreversible deal is finally struck, and it exempts Japan’s future generations from holding themselves accountable for the sins committed by their forefathers. The only remaining chore is the government’s funneling of agreed compensation at the amount of $8.3 million. Tokyo can sit back and watch the fire across the shore now.

China’s history card against Japan will lose its steam with Korea’s concession. The various collaborative efforts by China and Korea such as the joint application of ‘comfort women’-related records as UNESCO world heritage will be put on hold.

The agreement has opened many difficult questions. They mostly regard the Korean side. What will be the cost of the Park government’s rush to the deal? Will the transaction induce compatible amount of recognition and appreciation from the U.S. and Japan? If that happens, what kind of form will it take? And, was the whole thing worthwhile?

Future of the watershed deal remains to be seen for the implementation of agreed-upon details will not be easy. The spirit of agreement was admirable, and yet God is in the details. Is this deal a really done-deal?

Mikyoung Kim is an associate professor at the Hiroshima City University-Hiroshima Peace Institute

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