Public divided over ‘comfort women’ agreement

Authors: Trevor Kennedy, UBC, and Misato Nagakawa, RJIF

On 28 December 2015, the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea surprised the world with the announcement of a deal designed to ‘finally and irreversibly’ conclude the long-standing ‘comfort women’ dispute. Both South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have championed the agreement, but the deal’s implementation is fraught with difficulty. Apologies, admissions of guilt and financial support provided by Japan since the early 1990s have not been accepted by many civil groups in South Korea. And majorities in both countries have come out in opposition to the latest agreement.

South Korean demonstrators hold up pictures of deceased former ‘comfort women’ during a rally near the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, 30 December 2015. (Photo: AAP).

Under the new agreement, Japan is required to provide a lump sum of 1 billion yen (US$8.3 million) to the surviving ‘comfort women’ in South Korea, to help restore their ‘honour and dignity’. Prime Minister Abe was also required to provide a formal apology.

South Korea pledges that if Japan meets the terms of the agreement, it will refrain from reprobation and criticism regarding this issue in international forums and will make an effort to address Japan’s concerns about the ‘comfort women’ statue outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. But the statue was erected by and belongs to civil groups, so the South Korean state may face political and legal obstacles in removing it.

While the governments of Japan and South Korea are satisfied with the agreement, there has been a largely negative response from civil society groups in both countries. In Japan, prior to the foreign minister’s meeting, a Nikkei survey showed that 75 per cent of respondents support Prime Minister Abe’s efforts to improve Japanese–South Korean relations. But, attitudes regarding the ‘comfort women’ agreement diverge from their overall satisfaction with Abe’s South Korea policy.

According to Yomiuri Online’s survey on the agreement, only 49 per cent of respondents support the agreement while 36 per cent of respondents indicated that they don’t support it. Japanese ambivalence is rooted in a common belief that South Korean civil society is disinterested in genuinely solving the dispute.

While it has become the norm for anti-Abe protesters to amass outside the National Diet, the prime minister is politically secure. Even with the prospect of an alliance between the opposition Democratic Party of Japan and the Japan Innovation Party in the forthcoming 2016 upper house election, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is likely to maintain its majority. Abe’s political risk is mitigated as opposition parties have not yet taken aim at the new ‘comfort women’ agreement.

In South Korea, opinion on the agreement among the citizenry is divided. According to a public survey conducted by Realmater, 50.7 per cent of respondents don’t support the agreement. Support for the agreement differs dramatically according to age: 71.3 per cent of respondents in their 60s view the agreement positively, but only 31 per cent of respondents in their 20s feel the same. This may be due to the much higher support for the ruling Saenuri Party among elderly South Koreans. Of those respondents that support the Saenuri Party 78.1 per cent also support the agreement, while only 8.5 per cent of respondents who support the opposition Minjoo Party view the agreement positively.

Some former ‘comfort women’, as well as citizens groups representing them, have also expressed their disatisfaction. Out of the 46 former South Korean ‘comfort women’ who are still living today, two joined a 6 January 2016 demonstration against the agreement outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. And media reports have indicated that other former ‘comfort women’ have been angered by this agreement. In light of this, President Park will struggle to gain the support of her political opposition.

The South Korean government has been busy defending the agreement amid growing pressure to amend or reject it. Even before the ‘comfort women’ agreement, the government had been under significant pressure from the political left over a series of controversial policy decisions.

South Korea’s two main opposition parties, the Minjoo Party and Justice Party, have demanded that the agreement be renegotiated to ensure that Japan clearly takes on legal responsibility, which they claim it does not in the current agreement. The pressure of the upcoming legislative elections on 13 April 2016 significantly reduces the likelihood that opposition parties will throw their support behind the deal. Park’s term will extend until 2017, but she may become a lame duck president if her Saenuri Party loses control of the National Assembly.

The new agreement made by the two governments is significant as both countries demonstrated the will to improve their bilateral relations. Public dissatisfaction was inevitable as so many of the interested groups have different goals. Japan and South Korea cannot do much to appease those taking an emotional or political stance, but they can and should focus on explaining the merits of the agreement to groups genuinely interested in reaching a conclusion.

If civil society refuses to embrace this agreement, the legacy of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea may continue to weigh down South Korean–Japanese relations for another generation, a situation that will benefit neither Japan nor South Korea. Sadly, based on civil society’s response so far, it is unlikely that the issue of ‘comfort women’ will be solved ‘finally and irreversibly’ with this agreement and in this political atmosphere.

Misato Nagakawa recently graduated from the Campus Asia Program earning a Master in Public Policy from the University of Tokyo and a Master of International Studies from Peking University. She is an intern at the Rebild Japan Initiative Foundation.

Trevor Kennedy is a Master of Arts Asia Pacific Policy Studies candidate at the University of British Columbia. His twitter handle is @TrevorPKennedy.