Can South Korea and Japan resolve the ‘comfort women’ issue?

Author: Kazuhiko Togo, Kyoto Sangyo University

Japan’s relations with South Korea have reached a new low. Six issues continue to plague bilateral relations, exacerbating the divide on historical memory: a lack of trust between Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and ROK president Park Geun-hye, the ‘comfort women’ issue, the Takeshima/Dokdo dispute, ROK judicial decisions on forced labour, Japanese politicians’ Yasukuni visits and Japan’s moves toward collective self-defence. The ‘comfort women’ issue may be the most serious bilateral friction point, but it also presents the greatest opportunity for a breakthrough.

Some analysts in Japan argue that problems in Japan’s relations with South Korea are structural. The power shift in East Asia, it is argued, has encouraged South Korea to cooperate more closely with China and forgo alignment with Japan as a key power. Japan’s internationally weakened position also now allows South Korea to give full expression to its deeply rooted suffering under Japanese colonial rule from 1910–1945. And this has been a convenient tool for generating support and unity in the ROK domestic political arena.

But, given that Japan and South Korea are both economically advanced democracies and allies of the United States, it is in the long-term interest of both countries to improve ties. Besides, today’s deterioration in relations contradicts the close historical ties between the two countries that have existed since the time of Korea’s Three Kingdoms and Wa Japan.

There may be some political forces in Japan who rely on ‘Korea-hatred’ for their sustenance but they are politically marginal.

Among some of Abe’s so-called ‘nationalist’ supporters, the 1993 Kono Statement has been a source of indignation. ‘Nationalists’ have criticised the Kono Statement for giving the impression that these women were ‘physically coerced’ by Japanese state officials to serve at comfort stations. But there are no surviving documents that prove women were subject to ‘physically coerced’ deportation.

After Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine on 26 December 2013, the media speculated that the next ‘nationalist’ agenda would be to revise the Kono Statement. The United States grew concerned that Japan and South Korea, its two allies in Northeast Asia, would fall out more deeply, with disastrous consequences for security relations. Subsequently, a combination of US pressure and diplomatic contact between Seoul and Tokyo saw Abe, on 14 March, make an important statement in the Diet that ‘his cabinet [was] not going to revise the Kono Statement’ and that ‘his heart [aches] thinking of those who had gone through indescribable pain, and that feeling is the same as all his predecessors’.

This paved the way for the Obama–Abe–Park trilateral meeting in The Hague on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in late March and US President Barack Obama’s visits to Tokyo and Seoul in April. But, while taking these decisions towards rapprochement with South Korea, Abe’s cabinet also decided to re-examine the drafting process of the Kono Statement.

It is not entirely clear what Abe’s government wanted to achieve by going back to the process of drafting the statement. But since the decision was presumably made as a political compromise to the Kono Statement deniers in Japan, the purpose should have been to prove something that is useful in defence of the nationalists’ position.

So when the review was issued on 20 June, the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) almost instantaneously issued a statement expressing their ‘deep regret’ at the review. The statement stressed that ‘the review by the Japanese government itself runs counter to its pledge to uphold the Statement’. The ROK MOFA also maintained that the Kono Statement is the result of Japan’s ‘own investigation and judgment’ and ‘the ROK government merely expressed its views informally’ after ‘repeated requests from the Japanese side’. International views were not kind to Abe either and as early as 22 June the New York Times carried an editorial titled ‘Japan’s historical blinders’. The official mood in Washington concurred that the review was a useless addition to efforts to resolve the issue.

Such criticism is understandable. The review put the ROK MOFA in an awkward position given domestic political dynamics — nuanced positions are politically difficult because any ‘cooperative attitude’ towards Japan is a source of criticism in present-day South Korea.

But the overwhelmingly negative bilateral and international commentary, such as that in the New York Times and of the ROK MOFA, that followed after 20 June neglected the content of the report as well as how the review has affected Japan’s domestic positioning of the Kono Statement.

Most importantly, for those who read the review in its entirety, it gives an affirmative impression of the way the Kono Statement was drafted and conveys great respect for the South Korean diplomats who did their best by advising their Japanese counterparts what kind of attitude and language was most conducive for eventual reconciliation. Those Japanese politicians and diplomats did their best at the time to acknowledge the great pain Japan caused. Their hearings with the comfort women were not made in an environment aimed at ‘legally proving’ their statements but in an atmosphere of listening with sincerity and consideration of the present-day feelings of those who suffered tremendously some 50 years prior.

Advice from the South Korean side was accepted so as to create an effective statement for reconciliation, while leaving no doubt that the ultimate responsibility lay on the Japanese side. Furthermore, on the evening of 20 June this year, Yohei Kono, the original speaker of the Kono Statement and widely considered a progressive within the Liberal Democratic Party, issued another historic statement in which he emphasised that the review ‘does not add or subtract anything’ from the work he did 20 years ago. All these developments stand on Abe’s confirmed statement in March that his cabinet has no intention of revising the content of the statement.

This has given hope that the Abe government may open a window for a breakthrough. Whatever the position of Kono Statement deniers, in the wake of the review there has emerged the unexpected situation that the statement has now found a certain historical legitimacy in Tokyo not only with long-time supporters but also among its long-time ‘nationalist’ deniers. This is an astonishing ‘yes’ that has sprung up in Tokyo in recent times.

It is in Japan’s interest to reach reconciliation on this issue, which emerged in Japan–ROK relations towards the end of the 1980s and has dragged on for more than 25 years. In the other countries and regions which suffered severely — namely Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and the Netherlands — the issue has been politically resolved through the activities of the Asian Women’s Fund. But with South Korea political resolution has become exceedingly difficult.

It is important to focus on achieving reconciliation while the women who suffered are still alive — only they have the moral authority to give real forgiveness. Abe and his officials need to now work with maximum humility and goodwill, based on the resolute position of the Kono Statement.

A word of caution is required on the magnitude of the task. Cooperation with Abe and his government may be politically risky for Park. Abe and Park will need to move quickly giving consideration to the happiness of those who suffered most. Moves to study and recognise the goodwill of those who worked in and around the Asian Women’s Fund will need to be freed from short-term political populism and be considered more broadly from the perspective of South Korea’s long-term national interests.

Japan must work to provide an atmosphere conducive to reconciliation, but at the same time South Korea must make its own decision as a nation in a calm and considered way. The past 25 years and more of Japan–ROK exchanges show not just how difficult the comfort women issue is to resolve but also that with a bit of hard work and political commitment the two sides can find reconciliation.

Kazuhiko Togo is a former director-general of the Treaties Bureau at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. He is currently director of the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘A Japan that can say ‘yes”.