Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Japan-ROK pact on ‘comfort women’

all three ships eventually became
troop/POW transports
Will it help heal the wounds?

by Dr. Mike M. Mochizuki, holds the Japan-US Relations Chair in Memory of Gaston Sigur at George Washington University. He co-directs the “Memory and Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific” research and policy project of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies. He is co-editing a book entitled Reconciling Rivals: War, Memory, and Security in East Asia. He is a board member of APP.

First published in The Oriental Economist, January 2016.

On December 28th, instead of signing a written document, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se of the Republic of Korea (ROK) read carefully crafted statements regarding their respective government’s understanding of a bilateral agreement to address the “comfort women” issue. Comfort women is the euphemism used to describe women coerced into providing sexual services for the Japanese military during World War II. Soon after this public announcement, Prime Shinzo Abe of Japan and President Park Geun-Hye of the ROK spoke on the phone to confirm their intention to implement the agreement and to strengthen bilateral cooperation. Like most international deals forged after difficult negotiations, this agreement entailed a delicate compromise. Its political viability will depend on perceptions of fairness on both sides about the concessions made and expectations about the outcomes achieved.

A delicate compromise
During the negotiations, the South Korean government sought to address as much as possible the demands of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery for Japan (hereafter Korean Council) and the comfort women survivors whom this non-governmental organization represented. The Korean Council had been insisting that the Japanese government give an official and irreversible apology to the comfort women, admit legal responsibility, and provide compensation legally designated as reparations. From the Korean Council’s perspective, an official and irreversible apology would ide- ally be a resolution passed by the Japanese Diet, the highest organ of state power; but the council appeared open to an apology that had the imprimatur of a Japanese Cabinet decision like the August 15, 1995 Murayama Statement.

In the December 28 agreement, Tokyo did not provide an apology that was explicitly approved by the Japanese Cabinet or the National Diet, did not admit to legal responsibility, and did not offer legal reparations. But it went a bit further than the Asian Women’s Fund (AWF) initiative, which was inaugurated by Japan in 1995. Under the AWF program, Japanese Prime Ministers sent letters to former comfort women that extended their “most sincere apologies and remorse” and acknowledged Japan’s “moral responsibilities” as well as “an involvement of the Japanese military authorities.”

In making the new agreement, Prime Minister Abe not only reiterated the language of the previous apology and acknowledgment of Japanese military involvement, but also declared “the Government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective.” While the Japanese statement of December 28 refrained from referring to legal responsibility, it was explicit about the government’s awareness of responsibilities. By not using the modifier “moral,” which was included in the Prime Minister’s apology letters under the AWF, Abe’s apology implied that the government’s responsibilities were not just moral in nature.

In the AWF program, state funds had been allocated to provide medical and welfare support—¥3 million ($25,000) per person—to Korean comfort women survivors, and private contributions were to be used for “atonement” money, ¥2 million ($17,000) per person. Arguing that this amounted to charity rather than legal reparations, many Korean comfort women survivors with the encouragement of the Korean Council refused this Japanese contribution. This time around, the Japanese government agreed to make “a one-time contribution” of ¥1 billion yen ($8.3 million) from the public budget to a foundation established by the South Korean government to provide support to the comfort women (there are just 46 still alive) and to engage in Japan-ROK cooperative projects “for recovering the honor and dignity and healing the psychological wounds of all former comfort women.”

“No more demands for apologies”
The Abe government was seeking an agreement that would be final. In the view of many Japanese, Japan had addressed the issue of its colonial and wartime responsibility with South Korea on previous occasions, such as through the 1965 normalization process and the 1995 Asian Women’s Fund; but rather than finalizing the issue, South Korea kept “moving the goal post.” Not only did Japan want a new agreement to resolve the comfort women issue once and for all, but also it did not want to undermine the parameters of the 1965 Normalization Treaty by acknowledging legal responsibility or offering legal reparations. Moreover, Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party sought to have the statue of a girl depicting a comfort woman, located across the street from the Japan Embassy in Seoul, removed and, if possible, bring an end to building comparable comfort women statues and memorials in the US. Finally, Tokyo wanted to stop criticisms of Japan in UN–related bodies as well as other international organizations. It was irritated that South Korea was preparing materials concerning comfort women to be included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.

As already noted, Japan succeeded in avoiding “legal responsibility” and “legal reparations” in the deal. It also got Foreign Minister Yun to state that the “issue is resolved finally and irreversibly.” Moreover, the fact that the new foundation would be established by South Korea made it difficult for Seoul to backtrack. Although South Korea made no public promise to remove the comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese Embassy, it acknowledged Japan’s concern about the statue “from the viewpoint of preventing any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity,” and it agreed to “strive to solve this issue in an appropriate manner through taking measures such as consulting with related organizations.” The ROK government also declared that it would refrain, together with the Japanese government, from “accusing or criticizing each other regarding this issue in the international community, including at the United Nations” under the condition that the Japanese government would implement the bilateral agreement.

In short, both sides made concessions while achieving an outcome that moved toward their original objectives. South Korea acquiesced to Japan’s opposition to legal responsibility and legal reparations, but it did get Japan to commit public funds to establish a South Korean foundation to address the comfort women issue and to have the Japanese Prime Minister express “his heartfelt apology and remorse” and acknowledge government responsibilities. Moreover, the irreversibility of the agreement suggested that Abe and other like-minded Japanese conservatives would have to refrain from future moves to repeal or dilute the 1993 Kono Statement of apology toward comfort women. Japan acquiesced to an acknowledgment of Japanese military involvement and government responsibility, but it did get South Korea to state that the agreement was final and that the government would refrain from criticizing Japan in the international community.

Public reaction: Japan vs. Korea
With only 46 Korean comfort women survivors alive, both Seoul and Tokyo recognized the urgency of reaching an agreement. Washington was also encouraging the two sides to resolve this issue, not only for humanitarian and moral reasons, but also for geopolitical ones. Given North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and provocative behavior and the increasing assertiveness of a rising China, US policymakers have been concerned that continuing animosity between its two Northeast Asian allies would have major opportunity costs for promoting regional security cooperation and could even encourage South Korea’s strategic drift toward China. Although President Park had initially rebuffed Japanese overtures to improve bilateral relations, growing concerns about her country’s economy as well as the North Korean threat probably convinced her to assume the risks of negotiating an agreement on the comfort women issue with the Abe government. The ambiguities in the agreement and different expectations on each side, however, will make its implementation politically challenging.

On the Japanese side, the political reception has been generally positive. Even liberal and leftist leaders who have been critical of Abe have expressed their support of the agreement. Most of the grumbling has come from the conservative camp. Several prominent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians have insisted that the comfort woman statue near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul must be removed expeditiously, and a few have complained that the agreement did not mention the comfort women statues and memorials in the United States or that Abe did not need to apologize and compromise since South Korea is entirely to blame for the deterioration in bilateral relations. Despite this discontent, given his nationalist credentials, Abe should be able to manage and deflect intra-LDP opposition.

President Park faces a more serious political predicament. Although her ruling Saenuri Party has come out in support of the agreement, the opposition Minjoo Party has called for rescinding it and renegotiating with Japan. With a National Assembly election scheduled for April 2016, the opposition will be tempted to make this an election issue. According to Korean opinion surveys conducted soon after the agreement was announced, most South Koreans are critical of the agreement and question the sincerity of Abe’s apology. According to one poll, 74% are opposed to moving the comfort woman statue.

Much hinges on whether the Korean Council and the comfort women survivors will be able to block implementation of the agreement. The Korean Council has publicly denounced the agreement and expressed its strong opposition to removing the statue, which the organization erected in 2011 to commemorate the thousandth time demonstrators staged their regular Wednesday protest in front of the Japanese Embassy. In a dramatic display of anger, comfort women survivors affiliated with the Korean Council criticized a senior Korean diplomat, who visited to explain the agreement, for not consulting them before reaching the accord. A Korean diplomatic spokesperson later revealed during a press briefing that the government had been consulting with former comfort women and their support organizations during the negotiations.

The handling of the comfort woman statue could unravel the agreement. Some Japanese media outlets have reported that the Japanese government sees the statue’s removal as a precondition for the allocation of public funds for the foundation in South Korea. Korean officials have vehemently dismissed such reports as notorious attempts to unravel the accord. Given the current Korean sentiment against moving the statue, a decision by Japan to withhold funding until the statue issue is resolved would likely intensify Korean public opposition to the pact itself. A better course would be to see a resolution of the statue issue as a possible outcome of a healing and reconciliation process that a Japanese state-funded foundation in South Korea would promote. Prime Minister Abe faces a difficult decision whether or not to go ahead with funding the new South Korean foundation even without progress on the statue issue. To save the agreement, he might have to go against his own preferences while simultaneously finding a way to placate his nationalist political base.

A path to historical reconciliation
Successful implementation of the December 28 accord may open the way to regular Japan-South Korea summit meetings, greater bilateral security cooperation, and deeper economic relations. But just as the October 1998 historic summit between then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and President Kim Dae-Jung failed to promote long-term historical reconciliation, the recent comfort women agreement will be insufficient. Reconciliation requires more than interstate bargains built on compromises. The societies of both nations must be engaged and involved to foster empathy and trust. All too often, Japanese leaders and citizens focus on what it would take to bring an end to historical issues and to make relations with South Korea truly future-oriented. Deep reconciliation at the societal level, however, is not some diplomatically established goal post, but rather an ongoing and never-ending process. State-to-state agreements can facilitate the process, but actions and processes that resonate with the public are essential.

Prime Minister Abe, representing the country that is responsible for the comfort women’s suffering, should personally visit the comfort women survivors and directly express his apologies and remorse. Of course, such an act would involve substantial political risks, but it is precisely the riskiness of it that would make the apologies powerful and sincere. The new foundation to be established in South Korea with Japanese money could also embrace the “Butterfly Fund” proposed by several comfort women survivors and established by the Korean Council. This fund now allocates donations received in honor of the comfort women to victims of sexual violence during war in other countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Vietnam. Japan could even consider an additional contribution specifically to this fund as part of Prime Minister Abe’s campaign to promote women’s rights and empowerment throughout the world.

Finally, Japan together with South Korea and the United States should promote non-governmental international institutions for research, exchanges, and education regarding not only the comfort women issue, but also the many other historical issues that cause tensions in East Asia. Such an initiative would be consistent with Abe’s August 14, 2015 statement in which he declared, “We Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humility, and pass it on to the future.”

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