Japan and South Korea have reached an agreement over the long-standing issue of "comfort women," a term that describes sex slaves used by the Japanese military during World War II. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said his government will give 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) to a fund to help those who suffered.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said that as long as Tokyo sticks to its side of the deal, Seoul will consider the issue "irreversibly" resolved. In addition, the two governments "will refrain from criticizing and blaming each other in the international society, including the United Nations," Yun said at a joint news conference Monday.
Kishida said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe "expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women." Historians say tens of thousands of women from around Asia, many of them Korean, were sent to front-line military brothels to provide sex to Japanese soldiers. Only 46 known former Korean sex slaves, most in their late 80s and 90s, are still alive, and with time running out and with frustration growing, the deal is seen by many here as the best to be had from a hawkish Abe government.
But an advocacy group for former comfort women said the deal announced Monday is "a diplomatic humiliation." "Although the Japanese government announced that it 'feels (its) responsibilities,' the statement lacks the acknowledgment of the fact that the colonial government and its military had committed a systematic crime," said the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery. "The government had not just been simply involved but actively initiated the activities which were criminal and illegal."
The foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea recently reached a deal on World War II Korean sex slaves, but the compromise is facing backlash from some of the women themselves. In the terms of the deal, Japan offered a new apology and $8.3 million to care for the victims, and South Korea agreed not to press any future claims on the issue.
But when South Korean vice foreign minister Lim Sung-nam met with former comfort women in Seoul, he was greeted with animosity from the victims, in part because many were upset they had no voice in the deal, according to the New York Times.
“Which country do you belong to?” Lee Yong-su, 88, shouts at the vice foreign minister. “You could have at least let us know what kind of deal you were striking with Japan.” “Why are you trying to kill us twice?” Lee Yong-su asks, according to the translation on the video on Facebook.
According to a New Year’s survey conducted by the Joong Ang Ilbo, 47.6 percent of respondents agreed with the Korean government’s position that the Japanese government had, in actuality, acknowledged legal responsibility in the landmark deal reached on Dec. 28 between Seoul and Tokyo, while 47.9 percent did not agree.
The landmark agreement promised an apology from the Japanese government and a multimillion-dollar fund for the Korean women forced into Japanese military brothels during the war, who are euphemistically known as “comfort women.” Alternately, 4.5 percent said they “did not know” or did not respond.
The newspaper conducted a nationwide telephone survey of 1,000 people over age 19 between Dec. 29 and 30. There was a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent and a 95 percent level of confidence. Older people surveyed were more likely to think Japan had acknowledged legal responsibility, with 57.6 percent of respondents in their 50s and 65.5 percent in their 60s agreeing with the Korean government’s stance.
Their reactions came after the conclusion of the deal, negotiated by Korea and Japan’s foreign ministers, which includes an apology from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a plan to establish a fund for the victims using 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) of Japan’s state budget. The Japanese government acknowledged that it bears “responsibility” for the comfort women issue, which “severely injured the honor and dignity of many women, with the involvement of its military” – more than it has ever conceded in the past.
A South Korean court ordered a university professor on Wednesday to pay 10 million won, or $8,262, to each of nine women who had filed suit claiming that the scholar had defamed them in her book about Japan’s World War II-era military brothels. Since Park Yu-ha, a professor of Japanese literature at Sejong University in Seoul, published “Comfort Women of the Empire” in 2013, she has faced a series of civil and criminal complaints from the nine South Korean women, who say they were forced to serve at the brothels during the war.
In ruling on a civil lawsuit on Wednesday, the Eastern District Court in Seoul said that Ms. Park must pay reparations because she had defamed the women with “false,” “exaggerated” or “distorted” content in her book. Ms. Park said she would appeal. Many intellectuals in South Korea and Japan have condemned the legal maneuvers against Ms. Park as violations of freedom of scholarship. They have also warned that her troubles illustrate how dangerous it could be to challenge conventional wisdom in South Korea about historically delicate issues.
In her book, Ms. Park called for a more comprehensive view of the women in the brothels, euphemistically referred to by the Japanese as “comfort women.” They have been widely described in official South Korean history as young women forced or lured into sexual slavery. Ms. Park argues that such a picture was only partly true. Ms. Park also wrote that there was no evidence that the Japanese government was officially involved in, and therefore legally responsible for, forcibly recruiting the women from Korea, then a colony of Japan.
She said that Korean collaborators, as well as private Japanese recruiters, were mainly responsible for taking Korean women, sometimes using coercion, into the “comfort stations,” where she said life included both rape and prostitution, and the women developed a “comradelike relationship” with Japanese soldiers. In February, another court ruling ordered that her book be redacted in 34 sections for what it called defamatory content. Aside from the civil lawsuit decided on Wednesday, Ms. Park also faces a separate criminal trial, after prosecutors indicted her last November on a charge of defaming the women.
For the U.S., the prospect that China would gain ground in the competition with Japan over South Korea was a source of concern. The Dec. 28 agreement resolving the “comfort women” issue puts those concerns to rest in the U.S., just in time to face North Korea’s nuclear moves and propel the “pivot” to Asia in the final year of the Obama administration.
Under the agreement, Japan will pay 1 billion yen, or $8.3 million, into a fund to compensate the small number of south Korean women who are still alive from that era, and Abe has issued an apology and expressed national remorse over the matter. South Korea has agreed to try to persuade an activist group to remove a statue of a comfort woman it placed in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to protest Japan’s handling of the issue. And, most important of all, the two countries pledged to deem the matter resolved and not criticize each other anymore about it, calling the settlement “final and irreversible.”
The decision to move forward on this issue was fraught with political risks for both governments. Not surprisingly, they are both facing criticism from nationalist forces at home, particularly Park. She has been the target of emotionally piercing attacks by surviving comfort women, who justifiably asked why they were not consulted before the deal was approved. Many critics said the compensation amount is much too small, and opposition members in Parliament have accused the president of selling out the country in a deal bordering on treason. Abe has also come under attack. But, in the end, both Abe and Park hail from hard-line conservative, nationalist parties, which put them in a much stronger position to compromise.
Despite the objections on both sides, the matter is now presumably closed, and the strategic rebuilding of Japanese-South Korean ties, including improved military cooperation, can now make meaningful progress. Undoubtedly, the ripples of the deal have already triggered activity in Washington, whose efforts to fortify military cooperation in the area were hampered by the dispute. In 2012, South Korea had pulled out of a proposed program to share military intelligence with Japan as part of an American plan to create a three-country bloc in the face of a growing North Korean missile threat. Now that agreement can be revived.