Japan and South Korea agree on new, irrevocable "comfort women" deal

By Daniele Pestilli on December 28, 2015
Thumb comfort woman statue
Comfort woman statue (CC)

On December 28th, Japan and Korea reached an agreement that should permanently settle the “comfort women” issue, which has plagued relations between the two East Asian countries for decades. The agreement was reached at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Seoul, where Japan's foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, met with his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se to engage in discussions.

Japan is to pay 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) in compensation to a fund for the elderly comfort women, which will be managed by the Korean government. In return, Asahi News reports that Korea has agreed to an irrevocable conclusion to the “comfort women” issue. The remuneration was accompanied by an apology on behalf of the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe, who said: “I extend sincere apologies and reflection to all those who suffered mentally and physically as a result of the hard-to-heal scars caused by the comfort women issue.”

There are less than 50 of these women extant in Korea, all of which are in their 80s or older.

The BBC writes that South Korea has also agreed to remove the statue that sits outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, which was erected in December 2011 and symbolizes Korean comfort women. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe had demanded that the Korean government remove the statue which was set up by civic activists during his summit with President Park Geun-hye in November this year.

Whether this agreement truly makes a difference is doubtful.

The Korea Herald quotes Lee Won-deog, a Japan expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University: “Whether the agreement was successful or not depends on how you look at it. Given the initial impasse over the issue, there was progress in terms of reflecting Seoul’s position in the agreement, but from the standpoint of victims who have wanted to clearly state Japan’s legal accountability, the agreement may not be that satisfactory.”

Japan had already given South Korea $800m in economic aid and loans on June 22nd 1965, in an effort to restore friendship with its neighbor. This treaty, known as the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea already stipulated that “all treaties or agreements concluded between the Empire of Japan and the Empire of Korea on or before August 22, 1910 are already null and void.” The South Korean government spent the majority of those funds on social infrastructure, and helped develop the nation into the economic powerhouse it is today.

Seoul claims that colonial-era sex slavery was not on the agenda at the time, and that only in the 1990s did victims become more vociferous regarding this issue.

The first Korean woman to come forward and tell her story regarding her experience as a comfort woman was Pae Pong-gi, in Yamatani Tetsuo's 1979 film, An Old Lady in Okinawa. Estimates on how many comfort women there truly were in Japan's colonized territories vary: some say as low as 20,000, other sources claim more than 400,000, but it is generally thought that there were some 200,000 comfort women used for Japanese soldiers during the War. Given these figures, one might ask why Seoul claims the issue wasn't on the agenda until the 1990s.

In his book Korea's Place in the Sun, East Asian historian Bruce Cumings explains that the true horror of comfort women, and the reason it was swept under the rug for so long is that

To open up inquiry on this sexual slavery would be to find that many women were mobilized by Korean men. Japan fractured the Korean psyche, pitting Korean against Korean with consequences that continue down to our time.

The misfortune that befell on many Korean colonial-era sex slaves was often not in the form of a Japanese man, but of a Korean. During Japan's rule on the peninsula, forty to fifty percent of the National Police was comprised of Koreans. In Kim Ronyoung's book, Clay Walls, the author describes the experience of a relative of hers who was tortured and interrogated by a man named Okada, whose real – Korean – name was Yun. In the same novel, there is a Captain Yamamoto who also turns out to be Korean.

Following its colonial rule and the end of World War II, Japan has officially apologized more than 50 times to the countries it subjugated and to which it inflicted physical and psychological damage.

It is clear, then, that despite the 1965 compensation, despite the 1993 apology by cabinet secretary Yohei Kono, despite Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's or Prime Minister Naoto Kan's countless apologies for the tremendous damage and suffering caused by colonial rule, and despite this new apology from Prime Minister Abe supported by massive financial compensation for colonial sex slavery – the dispute cannot merely be resolved with money or apologies.

The real problem sits somewhere between Japan's severe wartime crimes and the deep laceration within Korea's national psyche.