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Legacy of war in Asia

Why Japan needs to revisit the 2015 ‘comfort women’ deal with South Korea

Jeff Kingston says the flawed bilateral agreement, as South Korean President Moon Jae-in asserts, ignores the wartime victims and risks deepening historic resentment. It is time for Japan to take the measure of what it inflicted and make genuine amends

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 2:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 7:46pm

Japan should agree to reopen the bilateral 2015 agreement on “comfort women” and work with South Korea to engage in a victim-centred public process. This agreement, concluded with the impeached former South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, is exceptionally one-sided, never had any legitimacy among South Koreans and thus could never live up to its billing as “final and irreversible”.

The 2015 accord perpetuates the “averted eyes” approach that has persisted for too long and forced women in war to suffer in silence. Insisting that the deal is sacrosanct, while eliding the violation these women endured, dishonours Japan and its victims.

The accord very obviously falls short of addressing the horrific abuses inflicted by Japan’s military on tens of thousands of women, mainly Koreans, in the 1930s and 1940s. On December 27, South Korea released the results of a five-month review of the agreement, which concluded that the victim-centred approach, “established as an international standard when it comes to women’s human rights during war, was not sufficiently reflected during the negotiation process”. In fact, the victims and their advocates were excluded from the secret negotiations – ostensibly meant to sincerely address a profound historical injustice.

Japan says ‘no alternative’ to ‘comfort women’ deal after South Korean president dismisses it

President Moon Jae-in has repeatedly criticised the accord for being flawed in content and process. On January 4, he also met former comfort women and apologised to them for the Park government’s negligence. This compassion was entirely missing in the quid pro quo deal – payouts for silence about a sordid saga of women having to endure sexual slavery. The Japanese government did not even acknowledge its responsibility and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe failed to make a public apology, only phoning it in to Park.

Surely the 2015 agreement is a betrayal of international norms and decency

However, the chances of Japan renegotiating the 2015 agreement appear slim, because it is on firm legal ground. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga insists that the deal is “final and irreversible” and Foreign Minister Taro Kono has warned of serious consequences if Seoul reneges. But condemning Seoul for not abiding by a flawed pact, which a disgraced leader agreed to, is not going to solve anything.

Abe is well known as a revisionist, with a preference for a vindicating and exculpatory wartime history. He has spent most of his political career downsizing and denying state responsibility for the comfort women system. On his watch, comfort women have disappeared from major secondary school textbooks. Abe’s defenders hold up the 2015 agreement as an example of his pragmatism. Indeed, Abe went beyond his comfort zone to authorise it and to indirectly express remorse for the comfort women system.

Japan and South Korea reach deal on ‘comfort women’

But what did Abe really concede? He did not have to acknowledge state responsibility for the comfort women system, or have to assume legal responsibility for it; he paid peanuts (US$9 million) to get South Korea to sign away all related claims and did not reach out to the victims or apologise directly to them.

For Abe, Moon’s criticism constitutes a betrayal of trust, but surely the 2015 agreement itself is a betrayal of international norms and decency. The UN Committee Against Torture gave credence to this view last May, when it urged both nations to revise the deal.

Why is it so hard for Japan to say sorry?

Moon is right that the agreement is flawed, but Tokyo is adamant that a deal is a deal. Abe and Japanese diplomats are furious with Moon for moving the goalposts, and not living up to what they believe is South Korea’s end of the bargain: removing the comfort women statues in Seoul and Busan that reproach Japan’s diplomatic presence in these cities.

These statue wars are escalating on the global stage, as Tokyo fights a losing battle to prevent municipalities across the US from installing memorials to the comfort women. This is a counterproductive use of diplomatic resources, as it conveys the impression that Japan lacks compassion towards women victimised by war and wants the world to forget their traumas.

Abe got an incredibly good deal and now finds that it was too good to be true. Japan has to find the courage to take the measure of what it inflicted and act accordingly, by demonstrating greater empathy.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan