Japan–ROK comfort women agreement a key step to reconciliation

Author: Lionel Babicz, the University of Sydney

The recent agreement between Japan and South Korea on the ‘comfort women’ issue does not really come as a surprise. The announcement by the foreign ministers of Japan and the Republic of Korea is one more important step in the process of settling historical issues begun in 2015 by South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It is a serpentine course and there are still hurdles, but the direction is clear: Seoul and Tokyo have chosen the path of reconciliation. Both countries are willing to overcome the past and turn their attention toward the future.

People protest a recent landmark deal between Japan and South Korea over women forced to work in Japan's wartime military brothels, near a bronze statue of a girl symbolizing the 'comfort women' issue located in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul on December 30 2015. (Photo: AAP).

A series of important events have preceded this agreement. In June 2015, Japan and South Korea succeeded, at the last moment, to turn the 50th anniversary of the 1965 ‘Treaty on Basic Relations’ into an opportunity to try and revive their degraded bilateral relationship.

Then, in August 2015, Prime Minister Abe marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II with two important gestures. He issued a ‘carefully crafted statement’ where, while giving his own conservative interpretation of Japan’s recent history, he also endorsed all previous official apologies, including the landmark 1995 Murayama statement. Abe also chose to stay away from the contentious Yasukuni shrine since his last visit in December 2013.

President Park reacted with mild criticism to Abe’s commemorative statement, noting that ‘it did not quite live up to our expectations’. But she also reiterated her commitment to move towards a future of ‘renewed co-operation and shared prosperity’ with Japan. This opened the way to a Park–Abe summit as part of a trilateral summit held in November 2015 in Seoul between the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea. This was immediately followed by an unprecedented series of bilateral meetings at international gatherings: the G20 summit in Turkey, the APEC summit in the Philippines and the ASEAN plus three meeting in Malaysia.

The Kishida–Yun announcement on ‘comfort women’ is certainly the direct outcome of these events. The first paragraph of the Japanese section is in line with the 1993 Kono statement, and crucially mentions the ‘involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time’. This goes against the grain of conservative critics of the Kono statement. After such an endorsement, it will be nearly impossible for any future Japanese government to step back.

The second paragraph of the agreement establishes a South Korean governmental foundation funded by a one-time Japanese contribution to provide support for former ‘comfort women’. This seems to be an answer to the critics of the private character of the Asian Women’s Fund, which was established in 1995 (with Japanese governmental support) to pay reparations to former ‘comfort women’.

Finally, both countries agree that, on the premise that the above foundation is created, the ‘comfort women’ issue is ‘resolved finally and irreversibly with this announcement’. If this comes true, this agreement will become a major milestone for Japan–South Korea relations.

It should also ease considerably the diplomatic tensions between the two countries and allow Japan and South Korea to cooperate more closely in international forums. A taste of such cooperation could already be seen at the beginning of December, with the announcement that Tokyo and Seoul were to file a joint application with UNESCO to register records of pre-modern Korean goodwill missions to Japan on its Memory of the World list.

One lingering issue not resolved by the agreement is the ‘comfort woman’ statue erected in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The Kishida–Yun announcement says that South Korea will ‘strive to solve this issue in an appropriate manner’. But it is not clear how this will be done and South Korea has not made a commitment to remove the statue.

On top of this, one final move may still be needed to definitively turn the page on recent history: an imperial visit to South Korea.

Japanese Emperor Akihito visited China in 1992, but he has never been to South Korea. A first opportunity was missed in 2002, when the Emperor did not attend the opening ceremony in Seoul of the FIFA World Cup co-hosted by Japan and South Korea. Another occasion could have been seized in 2010, when Japan turned down an invitation by ROK President Lee Myung-bak to mark the 100th anniversary of the annexation of the Korean peninsula by an imperial visit.

Doubtless, such a historic visit will not be easy to organise and conduct. It may raise the question of the legality of Japan’s annexation of the Korean peninsula and of the role played by Emperor Meiji. An imperial visit may have to be accompanied by apologies with some new dimensions. But it could also convince an immense majority of South Korean and Japanese people to put the past behind them. And it could offer a good opportunity to remove that statue.

Lionel Babicz is a lecturer in Japanese history at the University of Sydney.