28.01.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Diplomatic Crisis Around “Comfort Women”: The 2015 Agreement Problem


Many of the author’s materials have been devoted to the surge of tension associated with the so-called ‘Comfort Women’ problem (Kor.: Wianbu) and the unsuccessful attempt to resolve the problem under Park Geun-hye. However, before we analyse the crisis in more detail about this agreement, it is worth reminding the audience of its content, because there are no fewer myths around who promised what to whom than around the Framework Agreement, which also preferred to remember only that the DPRK promised to freeze its nuclear gramme.

We have already written about the essence of the problem of Wianbu and its ambiguity, but when in 1965 the ROK and Japan signed an agreement on the normalisation of bilateral relations and an agreement was reached on the size and nature of compensation for the damage that Korea suffered during Japanese rule, the Wianbu received neither an apology nor compensation. For according to the documents from those years, all matters related to the crimes of Japan during the colonial period are considered to be permissible and there are no grounds for additional compensation by Tokyo.

Yes, some Japanese prime ministers have apologised, but the statement of Yohei Kono in 1993, and the statement of Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 were not official and reflected only a personal point of view.

In January 1997, the Murayama government tried to pay compensation through a specially created Asia Women’s Fund, – seven Wianbu were given a “refund” of 2 million yen along with a letter from the Japanese prime minister. However, the fund was not public and its money could not be considered ‘official compensation’. So it just added fuel to the fire of the protest movement, and the women who took the money were brutally attacked and ostracised.

It is necessary to take into account the peculiarities of Japanophobia as an important feature of public discourse, which has brought up a generation of “professional patriots,” according to which whatever the Japanese would do, their repentance would not be sincere enough.

This trend is strongly related to the conditional left wing of politicians, and not by chance. Although the joint declaration between the ROK and Japan between Kim Dae-jung and Keizo Obuchi included a passage that if Japan apologises, the problems of the historical past will not arise any more. Under No Mu Hyun, anti-nationalism again came into favour, and it should be remembered that the current president of the ROK is one of Roh Moo-hyun’s creatures.

Conservative Japanese circles, in turn, note that South Korea is the most “Japanophobic” country in the world because of the ‘black-and-white culture of the match between good and evil’, and try to play the North Korean card, arguing that supporters of the review of the December Agreement are directly or indirectly working for Pyongyang.

And then Park Geun-hye tried to turn the page of history. On December 28, 2015, the Foreign Ministers of the two countries Young Beng-se and Fumio Kishida reached an agreement, the text of which is available on the MFA website. Briefly:

  • The Japanese side acknowledged that “the problem of comfort women, which involved the Japanese military authorities, was a serious affront to the honour and dignity of a large number of women, and the Japanese government is painfully aware of this responsibility.” Minister Kishida also informed that “Prime Minister Abe once again expresses his most sincere apologies and remorse to all women who have endured immeasurable and painful experiences and received incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” In addition Abe also called President Park and expressed his apologies personally. From the author’s point of view, such wording suffices to say that apologies were not on behalf of Abe as a person, but on behalf of the Government.
  • Accordingly, the Government of Japan is taking “measures to heal the psychological wounds of all former comfort women within its budget.” To this end, the Government of the Republic of Korea is creating a special fund, with the Japanese side providing funds for a total of 1 billion yen, and further all projects to restore honour and dignity and heal psychological traumas will be carried out within the framework of cooperation between the two governments. This commitment was fulfilled, with 80 percent of the funds left directly to the women or their descendants, and 20 percent was spent on the projects and commemorative events dedicated to all the victims.
  • Accordingly, if the Government of Japan lives up to its promises (and the money, we recall, has been allocated and used), the issue is resolved “finally and irreversibly,” and the governments of the ROK and Japan would “refrain from blaming or criticizing each other on this issue in the international community, including the United Nations.” This passage was also duplicated in a statement by the Korean side, which “commends the statement and efforts made by the Government of Japan” in this regard.
  • For its part, the Government of the Republic of Korea acknowledges the fact that the Government of Japan is concerned about the statue built in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul and will seek to resolve this problem appropriately by taking measures such as consultations with relevant organisations on possible ways to address this problem. The latter is important because, from a formal standpoint, erection of provocative monuments in front of the embassy and weekly rallies around them are in violation of article 22 of the 1961 Vienna Convention, which obliges the host country to protect foreign diplomatic mission from any “disturbance of the peace” or “impairment of its dignity.”

However, the agreement provoked protests of the nationalist-inclined public, who immediately stated that the agreement was made without taking into account the opinion of the population and the victims themselves, and that the Japanese apologies were formal and were not sincere enough. The “patriots” demanded a special official statement, and some of their representatives-even a personal visit by Abe to the ROK, so that he would apologise directly to the women, and preferably-even kneel before them.

However, the thesis that the agreement was adopted without taking into account the views of the victims is not entirely correct. Thirteen out of 46 elderly women opposed compensations, believing that no money could ease their pain and suffering. However, these 13 live in special boarding houses; those who do not depend on the state, on the contrary, highly appreciated the agreement. The majority of victims accepted it.

Subsequently, critics of the agreement even announced that the document had a “secret part,” which was deliberately concealed from the public. The content of these “secret protocols” has not been announced verbatim, but it seems that Korea has agreed to abandon the erection of new monuments, both in and outside the country, in honour of “sexual slaves,” not to use this turnover in official documents, as well as to conduct “advocacy work” among public organisations.

In fact, the non-erection of monuments or the pacification of ardent patriots is rather an additional explanation to what constitutes a “final solution.” And removal from the documents or textbooks of the term “sex slaves” refers specifically to “sexual slavery” (especially as in relation to ALL the Wianbu it was incorrect). The main term “comfort women” has not disappeared.

For the Japanese, much more important was the waiver of legal compensation claims, which would have looked like a violation of the 1965 agreements. But in August 2016, 12 victims of sexual slavery filed a lawsuit against the government of Korea, stating that the agreement reached between Seoul and Tokyo on the issue of sexual slavery, contradicts the decision of the Constitutional Court. At the same time, they demanded that the authorities pay compensation to all victims and their families in the amount of 100 million won or approximately 89 thousand dollars per person. Thus, it was planned to get another billion from Japan in addition to the money already used, although Tokyo indicated that under this agreement, private stakeholders lost the opportunity to file lawsuits against the government of Japan.

Amidst the political crisis in the ROK and the subsequent impeachment of Park Geun-hye, the flywheel of anti-Japanese propaganda on the problem of Wianbu emerged with new vigour, especially as the protesters blamed the ex-president of the fact that she allegedly had complied with all Japanese demands. At the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 there was a scandal with monuments in front of the embassy and Consulate General of Japan in the ROK (in violation of the agreement, a new monument to the Wianbu was erected in front of the building of the Consulate General in Busan, and Japan lodged a sharp protest, accusing the ROK of not fulfilling the terms of the deal), due to which the Japanese ambassador was recalled for several months.

In the period of doldrums, the authorities tried to somehow resolve the crisis. On April 6, 2017, the head of the foreign trade and security department under President Kim Gyu Hyun met with the Ambassador of Japan to the Republic of Korea Yasumasa Nagamine, who demanded that the monuments be moved – the arrangements should be carried out regardless of the change of government in the Republic of Korea. Kim Gyu Hyun agreed, but recalled Seoul’s position that the monuments were established by non-governmental organisations, and that is why intergovernmental agreements do not apply to them. At the same time the wave of construction of monuments to the Wianbu has already crossed the borders of South Korea; at the moment, the US Korean diaspora has set up at least three, including in San Francisco.

On April 28, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Korean pointed out the undesirability of the installation of monuments, especially since in addition to the monuments to comfort women began a campaign to install a monument to the worker, symbolizing the victims of forced labour mobilization of Koreans, which the Japanese side again expressed concern about. However, on May 9, 2017, the regime finally changed…

But how the situation has developed under Moon Jae-in will be covered in the next article.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”

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