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Korea Tiptoes Toward Reconciling Comfort Women Issue
Yoon government seeks to push a painful issue into the past
By: Shim Jae Hoon
It is noon in Seoul, time for young, activist Korean women to rush to the Japanese embassy to protest under banners denouncing wartime Japan’s dragooning of thousands of Korean women as “sexual slaves” for Japanese soldiers fighting in remote parts of China and Asia.
These Wednesday rallies on behalf of the so-called Comfort Women have continued without letup for more than 30 years, impressing even the most diehard protesters. The issue has been an albatross around the neck of Japan for a generation. But after decades of fiery rallies, the momentum for popular mobilization appears to be weakening, especially in the wake of President Yoon Suk Yeol’s recent policy initiatives to put the past behind and push for normalization.
Following his summit talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on March 16, Yoon has been repeatedly sending out messages to “remember what had happened in the past, but don’t let that tie you up today.”
Kishida himself appeared to have embraced that message as he carefully broached the subject at the summit talks, asking if Yoon was now ready to implement the 2015 agreement signed between the two countries to put the issue behind them. It had been signed between then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Korean President Park Geun Hye. In tandem with that agreement, Abe had created a ¥1 billion (US$7.6 million) foundation created from the Japanese government budget to compensate the surviving dozen or so of the thousands of women enslaved as compensation for their ordeals and care for retirement life.
With that accord in document form, Abe admitted to the Japanese military’s role in creating and running “Comfort Women” stations in overseas war zones and expressed a “heartfelt and sincere apology” on behalf of the Japanese government. In exchange, the Korean government was asked to accept in written form the proposition that it considered the Comfort Women issue as “finally, irreversibly” resolved, and not to be taken to international forums like the United Nations for further global denunciation.
If that inelegant phrase written into the accord sounded a bit crass for a diplomatic document, it did reflect the depth of the Japanese government’s mortifying position over this detritus of history. Korean protesters had a bronze statue cast of a teenage Korean girl supposedly seized for a Comfort Women station and placed it in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul as a reminder of their crime. Copies of the statue were also produced for permanent display in international cities like Berlin and Los Angeles as a global reminder of Japan’s crime.
That apparently wasn’t enough for the next government of leftwing, nationalist President Moon Jae In, who came to power three years later. He claimed that the accord fell insufficient for meeting the Comfort Women’s ordeal, and rejected Abe’s foundation, even though 70 percent of the foundation’s funds had been provided to the aging victims.
At the center of Moon’s breach of the accord was Seoul’s activist, feminist civic campaign organization representing the Comfort Women cause. According to independent analysts in Seoul and Tokyo, these civic campaigners stood in the way of resolving the issue amicably at government levels because they hadn’t been involved in negotiating it. Indeed, a leader of one such campaign organization, which collects donations for aging Comfort Women, has been indicted for embezzling some of the contributions.
With such scandals contributing to growing public ennui over the whole issue, Korea’s younger generation by and large are becoming more interested in wider contacts with globally interconnected culture, including with Japan. One such trend is the growing number of young Koreans – precisely the age groups considered sensitive to the history of Japanese colonial rule – choosing Japan as their travel destination. As soon as Japan reopened post-Covid 19 inbound tourism last December, nearly a half million young South Koreans – the highest number of foreign tourists to hit Japan that year – flocked to Japan, accounting for a full third of all of Japan’s foreign inbound tourists.
That’s not to say that average South Koreans have suddenly changed their feelings about Japan, only that they have become more judicious in their views. A good indication of that is their changing country preferences: a January survey by Korea Research Poll showed 36.2 percent of young South Koreans favoring Japan, up from 27.8 percent last year, and their preference for China, falling from 27 percent last year to 25.6 percent this year.
This of course doesn’t mean that younger South Koreans are becoming suddenly oblivious of their country’s past historical problems with Japan, only that they are becoming more balanced in their judgment as shown by more and more Japanese books being translated and offered at bookstores.
A reflection of this trend is in Seoul’s own academia. On Seoul’s steady-sellers list in the past few years are “Comfort Women of Empire” authored by Park Yu Ha, which dispassionately examines the issue, and Anti-Japan Tribalism by Lee Young Hoon. Both are university professors and experts on Japan. Park was sued and brought to the court for her writing that not all Comfort Women were forcibly seized by Japanese militarists for army brothels, that some had been abandoned by their families and that some had even been prostitutes. As for Lee, he has faced potential terrorist attacks from ultranationalists for writing that Koreans themselves should face blame for allowing Japan to colonize Korea by being a laggard in modernization, and should stop blaming Japan for all their ills.
These revisionist attempts at self-examination attest to growing maturity and self-confidence on the part of South Korean society (North Korea, gripped in a premodern dynastic control, remains a separate case) in an inevitable progression to a postindustrial economic landscape. Despite lingering evidence of political immaturity such as corruption, South Korea’s new generation as a whole is clearly taking a more balanced view on relations with its age-old nemesis Japan.
So what are the perspectives?
Following the recent compensation of Japan’s wartime Korean laborers by Seoul’s own government President Yoon is allowing time to heal the case. “Korea-Japan relations are not a zero-sum game in which one side loses and other side gains,” he told a recent cabinet session, responding to opposition party agitation calling Yoon’s initiatives a “traitorous sellout.” But Yoon, unperturbed, is taking the lead on attempts to change the whole course of bilateral ties with Japan. He wants to push the past behind, focusing on security threats from nuclear-armed North Korea and geopolitical tensions arising from worsening China-US relations. Seoul today is openly supportive of Japan’s strengthening military posture against North Korea and China.
Even so, Yoon recognizes the domestic risks of moving too rapidly. When asked how Seoul would proceed, Shim Kyu Sun, chairman of the government-sponsored “foundation for aiding victims of forced mobilization under imperial Japan,” answered that the Comfort Women issue was something that Korea and Japan should carefully work together to heal, adding “this issue involves emotion, not reasoning.”
According to Dr. Lee, author of Anti-Japan Tribalism, at least 3,600 of anywhere between 10,000 to 20,000 Asian women said to have been forced into army brothels were Korean, although other researchers have put the number far higher.
With charges of inhumanity attached to the whole issue, the Yoon government hopes to proceed carefully to avoid giving the impression it wants to write off the historical blight in one big step. For the time being, he appears unlikely to take up the issue in haste, given that neither side has officially repudiated the 2015 agreement itself, which Kishida as foreign minister at the time had brokered. The agreement itself still stands, with only its implementation being withheld by Korea. With most of them dying of old age, and with most of Japan’s fund set up for their welfare distributed, both sides understand the issue is slowly diminishing.
For President Yoon, the only official act remaining is to declare that the Abe-Park accord is officially implemented by restoring Japan’s foundation. Closure is essential for the progress of bilateral relations. In the words of Lee Young Hoon, author of Anti-Japan Tribalism, the issues of history pending between the two countries are as much unilateral to Korea as it is bilateral to Japan.