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#5415, 2 January 2018

East Asia Compass

'Comfort Women' and the Japan-South Korea Relationship
Sandip Kumar Mishra
Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might not participate in the inaugural ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics because a South Korean task force has stated that the agreement with Japan on the ‘comfort women’ issue, signed in December 2015, has serious flaws. This will be an undesirable start in the new year for Japan-South Korea relations. Abe’s decision will definitely impact his proposal for a Japan-South Korea-Japan trilateral summit meet in April 2018 as Seoul may retaliate with a similar gesture. The trilateral meeting, scheduled to be held in Japan over the past two years, was postponed each time.

If Japan and South Korea are unable to reach an understanding and decline participation at the highest levels at bilateral and multilateral platforms, it would further widen misperception and increase the bilateral trust deficit. This, in turn, will have implications for regional politics as well as US policy in the region, for which both Japan and South Korea, as the US' closest allies in the region, will have to coordinate their positions on. Their bilateral disagreements will weaken a collective approach towards not only China but also an imminent crisis on the Korean peninsula.

The agreement reached between South Korea and Japan on the 'comfort women' issue was contested within the former right from the beginning. It was said that rather than genuinely deliberating on the specifics of the agreement in consultation with all stakeholders in a comprehensive manner, both South Korea and Japan hurriedly arrived at the deal under pressure from the US. Also, the previous South Korean President Park Geun-hye in the beginning of her term over-emphasised the ‘comfort women’ issue, and thus put most of the other exchanges with Japan hostage to its resolution. She even avoided meeting the Japanese prime minister on multilateral platforms in the third countries. When the fallout of this approach began having an impact on South Korea’s economic and other exchanges with Japan, Park Geun-hye moved to reach an agreement at the earliest and instructed her officials to conclude a deal with Japan as soon as possible. Similarly, Japan also showed its eagerness to reach a quick settlement as that meant only a roughly US$ 8.8 million Japanese compensation to be deposited in a fund established for the surviving ‘comfort women’.

It is interesting to note that after the agreement, the South Korean government and media highlighted Japan’s acceptance of its war-time mistakes; the Japanese government and media, however, were more keen on reporting that the agreement was ‘final and irreversible’. Any agreement that is arrived at by following a just and inclusive process becomes ‘final,’ even though it keeps a provision of non-finality. An agreement becomes ‘final’ not by having it in writing, in black and white, but rather by being fair, and genuine in being open to further additions. Unfortunately, this deal cannot be said to have been signed in good faith, given as it was reached without enough domestic consultation in either country. It was almost certain from the very beginning that a change of government in South Korea would lead to its review and that is what is happening now.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, after coming to power in May 2017, sent his special envoy to Japan to discuss a plethora of mutual concerns and to indicate to Japan that they would be happy to work together to tackle them. However, problematic issues of history, territory and even ‘comfort women’ must be discussed without prioritising the speed at which they ought to be settled. The two-pronged approach to cooperate with Japan on certain issues while with maintaining principled differences on other issues appears to be a mature response which both countries would be best advised to follow. In fact, the spectrum of issues common to the Japan-South Korea bilateral us varied and huge.  After the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1965, both countries have taken huge leaps in bilateral exchanges in economic, educational, cultural, and people-to-people domains. Both are the US' security allies, and share common challenges in the form of North Korea and China. Japan and South Korea, with the US, established a Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) in 1999 to deal with security and strategic issues.

In this context, both the former South Korean President Park Geun-hye and now Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have made a bad call in reducing their multifaceted relations to cherry-picked issues that are the cause of bilateral friction. 

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