Finality of Comfort Women Deal Not So Final

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Comfort women at a rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2011. Courtesy of Claire Solery and Wikimedia Commons.

On January 9, 2018, South Korea announced that it will not be renegotiating a 2015 agreement with Japan that addressed the “comfort women” issue. “Comfort women” is the euphemism for women in East Asia who were “forced to serve as sex slaves for Japanese troops during World War II.”[i] While the two governments may have reached a formal settlement, the comfort women issue is not resolved. When South Korea’s president, Moon Jae In, announced they would not be renegotiating the 2015 deal, he also urged Japan to make a “voluntary, heart-felt apology” to the comfort women. Additionally, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said that “our government… hopes that Japan will accept the truth as is, according to international standards, and continue efforts to help the victims regain honor and dignity and heal wounds in their hearts.” Japan rejected South Korea’s demands for additional measures and currently stands by the 2015 agreement as the complete resolution of the issue.

In 2015, the governments of Japan and South Korea reached a deal and announced that the dispute over Japan’s use of comfort women had been “finally and irreversibly” resolved. Under the 2015 agreement, Japan apologized and acknowledged Japanese military involvement and government responsibility. Japan also committed $8.3 million of its public funds to a South Korean foundation dedicated to supporting the women.  Activists in South Korea criticized the deal because it was reached without consulting the surviving victims and because under the deal, Japan did not admit legal responsibility for the abuses.[ii] In addition, Japan avoided legal reparations as Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida “clearly stated that the funding for the foundation is not a reparation for the survivors.”[iii] Many denounced the 2015 agreement as both governments’ attempt to “eras[e] the history, as if to make it something that never happened.”[iv]

The actions of Imperial Japan leading up to and during World War II have undermined relations between South Korea and Japan for decades, and the issue of comfort women has been a regular source of tension between the two countries. South Korea feels that many of the apologies already received from Japan have been insincere and that this insincerity results from Japan’s minimization of responsibility for wartime atrocities. Meanwhile, the Japanese government often takes the position that apologies have been made, that the issue should be put to rest as a result of post-war treaties and reparation efforts, and that South Korea is continuing to play the victim.

South Korea’s decision not to renegotiate the 2015 agreement was probably motivated in part by the need to maintain good relations with Japan in order to confront threats from North Korea. As Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono highlighted, “the Japan-South Korean agreement is an indispensable base for Japan-South Korean cooperation in various fields and the creation of a future-oriented relationship.” Thus, while not in the best interest of the victims, the decision to stand by the 2015 deal may help global efforts to rein in North Korea’s nuclear programs as it avoids straining relations between Japan and South Korea. Nonetheless, relations between the two countries are still imperfect. Furthermore, South Korea may be worried about its international reputation and may not want to be seen as an unreliable country that breaks diplomatic agreements. The 2015 deal is technically a binding international agreement, since it was negotiated and agreed to by lawfully elected representatives of Japan and South Korea. Therefore, South Korea may have felt that to be respected as a member of the international community it needs to honor this deal.

While the 2015 agreement exists, the comfort women issue has not been fully resolved. Japan needs to stop disputing the fact that the comfort women system happened, stop denying the Japanese government’s involvement, stop omitting this history from school textbooks, and stop trying to use legal technicalities to avoid responsibility. Otherwise, no apology issued will ever be sufficient for South Korea. Honoring the dignity and voice of the comfort women is at the center of the issue, and reconciliation may be a never-ending process when it comes to this issue. Agreements between Japan and South Korea that are built on strategic compromises are not going to unilaterally address the issue. For Japan and South Korea to reach actual reconciliation of the comfort women issue, there needs to be more willingness to empathize and a genuine curiosity to understand the position of the other side; a sincere apology will be a key part of any real resolution and will set the stage for lasting peaceful relations between these key East Asian players. Japan needs to address not just the South Korean government or politicians when issuing an apology but the comfort women themselves and allow them to have a voice in how they would like to be compensated for their pain. Of the apologies that Japanese prime ministers have given, “none…delivered their apologies in person, despite repeated requests,” from the comfort women. The way in which Japan chooses to apologize, as well as the words attached to the apology, are key to South Korea finding such efforts sincere and meaningful.

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[i] Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, The “Comfort Women” Reparation Movement: Between Universal Women’s Human Right and Particular Anti-Colonial Nationalism, 28 Fla. J. Int’l L. 87, 88 (2016).

[ii] Thomas J. Ward & William D. Lay, The Comfort Women Controversy: Not Over Yet, 33 East Asia, 256 (2016).

[iii] Id. at 255, 256.

[iv] Id. at 259.

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Katarzyna Robak is a second-year law student at Columbia Law School. Before entering law school, Katarzyna studied government and Hispanic studies at Dartmouth College.