Surprise Agreement on Comfort Women Issue and the Blowback in South Korea


December 2015 was a historic month for the relationship between Japan and South Korea. December 18 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between the two countries, and one week later, on December 25, Japan’s foreign minister suddenly announced that he planned to visit South Korea. Following a meeting between him and his South Korean counterpart in Seoul on December 28, the two foreign ministers announced that they had agreed on a “final and irreversible” settlement of the comfort women issue. The resolution of this contentious matter, which was welcomed by the international community, will surely go down as a turning point in the history of the bilateral relationship. But the abrupt move by the two countries’ governments has met with skepticism and has produced strong blowback within South Korea.

A Year-End Trip at the Prime Minister’s Behest

On December 24 the Japanese media reported that Prime Minister Abe Shinzō had instructed Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio to visit South Korea “before the end of the year.” This was an unusual development in the context of contemporary Japanese politics—the prime minister instructing a senior figure like Kishida, who heads one of the main factions in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, to travel abroad during the busy year-end period. Observers could only assume that this came after progress had been made in behind-the-scenes talks between Tokyo and Seoul. South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye had been pushing for resolution of the comfort women issue by the end of the year; Prime Minister Abe, by contrast, had been acting as if he was not especially concerned about the timing. So what had happened? A number of meetings had been held between the two countries’ diplomats at the vice-ministerial and bureau-chief levels, but it is hard to imagine that these talks alone induced Abe to dispatch Kishida to Seoul.

As I was puzzling over this riddle, I happened to remember my visit to the House of Sharing late in November. This facility, located in a suburb of Seoul, is home to 10 of the 56 surviving comfort women. It was built in 1992 with support from Korea’s Buddhist community on land contributed by an individual, and it also includes a history museum and an international peace and human rights center. It is one of South Korea’s leading facilities for comfort women. I spoke with the director, Ahn Shin-kwon, about the health of the residents, and when I asked him about the facility’s future, he explained that he hoped to model it on Germany’s Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future.” I could see the hope and vision in his face as he delivered this answer, which I had not anticipated. A month later, when the two foreign ministers held a joint press conference following their meeting in Seoul, they announced that a new foundation would be established with money from the Japanese government.

The principal actor in operating such a foundation will basically have to be a private-sector body. What South Korean group will play the central role, assuming that it is to be a group conducting comfort-women-related activities? The choices for the authorities in Seoul come down to two: the House of Sharing and the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. Given the conservative orientation of the current Park administration, it can be expected to choose the House of Sharing. The Korean Council is well known to be headed by people who espouse leftist thinking, and they most likely take pride in their ideological stance.

What seems to have happened is that the South Korean government conducted its behind-the-scenes talks with Japan while also consulting with the House of Sharing. The senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs repeatedly visited the House of Sharing, even though it is a considerable distance from the Blue House (the office and residence of South Korea’s president).

Further evidence that the Park administration tackled the comfort women issue in consultation with the House of Sharing emerged after the December 28 agreement was announced. One of the two vice-ministers of foreign affairs visited the House of Sharing and the other visited the Korean Council to explain the agreement. At the Korean Council, the vice-minister was met by a former comfort woman who reproached him, questioning his Korean nationality. She declared that of course the agreement was unacceptable. By contrast, the vice-minister who went to the House of Sharing had a relatively calm reception, and a comfort woman to whom he spoke said that though the agreement was inadequate, she would go along with it because she appreciated the government’s efforts. A key point to note here is that presumably these women, both more than 80 years old, were not expressing their personal views but were voicing the opinions of the organizations that have been caring for them. A Korean lobby group in Washington declared that removal of the comfort woman bronze in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul (as Japan expects under the recent agreement) would split national opinion in two. But South Korean opinion on the comfort women issue was already split.

Anti-Japanese Stances on the Left and the Right

The main architects of South Korea’s modernization were President Park Chung-hee (the current president’s father) and the people who carried on with his line after his death. These members of the conservative camp, including business leaders, have tended to have basically pro-Japanese values, while those in the progressive camp have taken an anti-Japanese stance. The left-right split runs deep within South Korea, and it is accompanied by regional and generational gaps. These all lead to heated confrontations over many issues.

When it comes to matters relating to history, however, the consensus is against Japan (or more precisely, conservatives feel unable to challenge the anti-Japanese line). This is seen not just with the comfort women issue but with regard to the conflicting claims to Dokdo (Takeshima), history textbooks, and the recently emerged issue of conscripted workers. The underlying psychology in these cases does not involve a left-right conflict between those with vested interests and those without but rather features a common denominator of resentment at Korea’s historical defeats. This resentment is composed of a sense of shame at having suffered repeated invasions from neighboring Japan—a nation that was formerly Korea’s inferior—without even once being able to take revenge, along with a frustrated sense that such revenge will never be possible.

As a result of this history-based resentment shared by the conservative and progressive camps, it appears to the Japanese that even a conservative administration in Seoul is liable to move the goalposts unilaterally. This shared posture was seen in the visit by conservative President Lee Myung-bak to Dokdo and more recently in President Park’s talk of “1,000 years” of animosity on the part of the victim toward the aggressor. The Lee administration stressed pragmatism and recognized the importance of ties with Japan, and so does the current Park administration. But when it comes to historical issues, neither could lead Korea’s civil society away from resentment, the spell of which remained unbroken.

A Politician Who Shines in Times of Crisis

In the face of this situation, when President Park finally held her first bilateral summit meeting with Prime Minister Abe on November 2, 2015, it came as a surprise that she spoke of resolving the comfort women issue by the end of the year. She had broken the spell of historical resentment. But what made her decide to do so? I surmise that two factors were at work. First, she probably made the strategic assessment that it was dangerous to let the US–South Korea alliance drift any longer. This judgment was presumably affected by pressure from US President Barack Obama. And it was also linked to the second factor, namely, domestic politics. Since starting her five-year term as president, Park’s support ratings have been surprisingly weak, running at around 40%. This is quite low if one considers that she is said to enjoy a bedrock support rate of 35% from people who would back her “even if the country came to an end.” As of 2016, she has only two years left in her term. Someone with a weak personality might well decide to give up on their ambitions and serve on as a lame duck. But Park, who lost both her parents to assassins’ bullets and who has remained unmarried and fought her way successfully through political vicissitudes, is fearless and pushes forward once she has made a decision. She is a politician who shines at times of crisis.

Crisis for Korea’s Conservatives

When she joined other leaders on the reviewing stand at Tiananmen Square for the 2015 China Victory Day parade last September, Park had already passed the midway point in her five-year term as president. She had a busy diplomatic schedule ahead of her, but members of the conservative camp she heads were feeling a sense of crisis. For one thing, they feared that she may have gone too far in cozying up to China—to the point that South Korea’s alliance with the United States might be jeopardized. Another concern was that left-wing values have been coming to dominate the education scene in South Korea’s civil society. This trend, if unchecked, could give the opposition the upper hand in the 2016 general elections for the national legislature, which could lead to an opposition victory in the 2017 presidential election. If that were to happen, it is not inconceivable that Park might find herself in serious trouble after she leaves office.

Impelled by this sense of crisis, the ruling conservatives made a number of policy adjustments. In the foreign policy field, the administration moved to counter the notion of excessive closeness to China and to put the alliance with the United States back on a more solid footing. On the domestic front, the government decided to return to uniform nationally designated history textbooks, and the conservatives have been trying to persuade United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to run as their candidate for president in 2017. This was the context for Park’s decision to seek prompt settlement of the comfort women issue with Japan.

The Blowback

It was only natural that South Korea’s civil society, left-leaning citizens’ groups and scholars in particular, would react against the sudden agreement between Seoul and Tokyo. South Koreans refer to this reaction as a “back blast”—the backward blast of air that occurs when a piece of artillery is fired.

One concrete example of this fierce reaction was an emergency discussion held at the National Assembly Members’ Office Building in Seoul on January 5. The session was organized by four groups, including the Korean Council and a lawyers’ organization. Participants, who included activists, academics, and lawyers, labeled the December 28 agreement a collusive pact that disregards historical justice, and they condemned the declaration of a “final and irreversible” settlement as an unconstitutional political act. This sort of rhetoric is sure to spread like wildfire.

Some people in Japan will probably complain that the South Koreans are again moving the goalposts. But this is not something that the authorities in Seoul, particularly those handling foreign affairs, are doing deliberately. The heart of the problem is that the government has been unable so far to produce a national consensus in the face of the sharp division in public opinion. President Park’s ability to achieve such a consensus before long will determine South Korea’s standing in the international community.

(Originally published in Japanese on January 13, 2016. Cover photo: Citizens rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul to protest the December 2015 agreement between Japan and South Korea. © Jiji Press.)

diplomacy Japan Korea comfort women issue President Park Chung-hee Prime Minister Shinzo Abe