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#4952, 4 January 2016
Japan-South Korea: Resolving the Comfort Women Issue
Sandip Kumar Mishra
Assistant Professor, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi & Visiting Fellow, IPCS

On 28 December 2015, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe extended an apology on the comfort women issue to victims in South Korea via Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. Japan also promised to officially provide US$ 8.3 million to South Korea to establish a welfare fund for the surviving victims. This agreement is being claimed by both the South Korean and Japanese governments as historic, and with the ability to bring their bilateral relations back on track. Japan-South Korea relations have been quite tenuous during the Shinzo Abe and Park Geun-hye administrations. Shinzo Abe has apparently been non-apologetic regarding Japan’s colonial past and been aggressive in regional politics, and the Park Geun-hye administration has been excessively sensitive on Japan’s stance on the comfort women issue. In the last few years, therefore, bilateral exchanges between the two countries, including economic, cultural and education exchanges, have suffered significantly. Park Geun-hye has avoided any meeting with Shinzo Abe bilaterally, and even on multilateral platforms, their few handshakes have been quite awkward. Many optimists believe that by reaching an agreement on the comfort women issue, both countries might be able to bring about a thaw in relations.

Shinzo Abe’s apology in this matter is considered important by the South Korean government as it might be interpreted as Japan’s acceptance of her wrongdoings during the colonial period. Furthermore, by providing the Japanese government’s money, Japan has officially acknowledged her responsibility to these victims. In return, South Korea has also promised that the matter is ‘conclusively’ resolved and she would not raise the issue on any international platform now on. There are also reports from Japan that South Korea has promised to remove a symbolic statue of a comfort woman located in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Thus, both parties have been projecting the agreement as a win-win development.

However, a close look at the process and content of the agreement raises doubts over the success of this agreement, and there has already been significant opposition in South Korea. When the two ministers of the Park Geun-hye administration visited a group of surviving victims to convey to them that the agreement had been signed, the ministers were confronted with hostile responses. Moreover, in the South Korean press and the Japanese press have interpreted the agreement quite differently, and only its convenient aspects have been emphasised. The Park Geun-hye administration has claimed that Japan has apologised to the comfort women and has promised official money for the welfare of these victims, and the Shinzo Abe government has emphasised the ‘conclusive’ end of the dispute and that the money provided by Japan cannot be called ‘compensation’. Japan claims that the issue of Japan’s legal responsibility for its colonial misdeeds were resolved during the normalisation treaty between Japan and South Korea in 1965.

In a way, it seems that Japan has not been sincere in its approach and rather than owning moral responsibility of her misdeeds, Shinzo Abe has been trying to win a diplomatic game. Without much investment, Japan is expecting the best possible results. If Shinzo Abe is really sincere, why is Japan against the use of the term ‘compensation’? Why did Shinzo Abe deliberately avoid making a direct and open apology to these victims? Why did his wife visit Yasukuni Shrine the very next day of the conclusion of the agreement? These questions raise many doubts. Basically, Japan’s aggressive approach under Shinzo Abe had led to worsening of its relations with China and South Korea, and he wanted to make the least possible compromises to revive at least its relations with South Korea. The agreement appears to be a result of this imperative and not any change of heart on the part of the Shinzo Abe government.

The Park Geun-hye administration also appears to be in a hurry to resolve the dispute and seems to be deliberately neglecting the real issues involved. This is not to do with whether Japan provides money to these victims, as many civil society groups in South Korea and abroad have already been taking care of this. It is about Japan owning her wrongdoings and apologising for it. Furthermore, any such apology must be based on a sense of guilt, compassion and sincerity. However, the current apology looks devoid of any of these traits and at best, looks half-hearted. In fact, South Korea has held various dimensions of her relations with Japan hostage to the issue of comfort women during Park Geun-hye’s tenure and this has proved to be the wrong strategy. Now, when worsening relations with Japan have started hurting it economically, South Korea wants to reach an agreement irrespective of its content.

Thus, in spite of the hype about the importance of the agreement between Japan and South Korea, it appears less likely to resolve the comfort women issue. Just by inserting the world ‘conclusive’ in an agreement, it cannot be made final. To make an agreement final, it must be ‘just’ and to the satisfaction of the victims. The agreement does not satisfy this condition and so, it does not appear to be the end of this dispute.

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