South Korea, Japan’s Unenviable Neighbor


Tokyo and Seoul have agreed to put the issue of the wartime “comfort women” behind them, with the Japanese government contributing ¥1 billion to a fund supporting the women. But it is uncertain whether the trend toward improved bilateral ties can be sustained in the face of China’s rise and the Korean culture of “black and white” thinking.

Let me start by making one thing clear: South Korea is both an unenviable neighbor and the most anti-Japanese country in the world. Understanding the relationship between Japan and South Korea involves three elements. And we must never forget the question of who benefits from the worsening of this relationship. The prime beneficiaries are North Korea and China. It is also advantageous to left-wing forces in Japan and South Korea. And some individual Japanese play a role as pawns in the process.

The three key elements that I would note for those who want to achieve a good understanding of the bilateral relationship are the following: (1) The end of the Cold War eliminated the communist threat to South Korea and lessened the threat from North Korea. (2) China’s rise is presenting South Korea with the need to choose between China and the Japan-US camp. (3) South Korea has a Confucian culture of binary opposition between good and bad, with little thought of gray zones.

President Park Refrains from Mentioning the Comfort Women

Late in July the South Korean government established a foundation for the purpose of providing support for the former comfort women. In protest, opponents broke into the ceremony marking its launch. On August 12, Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio announced that Japan would promptly provide ¥1 billion for the new foundation. And in her address on August 15, South Korea’s Liberation Day, President Park Geun-hye made no reference to the issue of the comfort women. She took a step away from the Korean logic of good versus bad.

Korean historian Chung Jae-Jeong, a professor at the University of Seoul, explains the comfort women issue as follows:
The issue of the Japanese military’s “comfort women” emerged in the 1990s as a pending problem. The Japanese government asserted that the system was operated by private-sector businesses and denied that the military was involved. Women’s groups reacted angrily, and Kim Hak-sun [a former comfort woman] and others gave testimony on the misery they suffered at the time. They filed a suit against the Japanese government in the Tokyo District Court, seeking an apology and compensation. (The Supreme Court rejected the suit in 2004.) In South Korea, private-sector groups like the Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan extended their support movement. . . . The Japanese government revealed its position that the issue of the Japanese military’s “comfort women” had been completely settled under the [1965] treaty between Japan and South Korea.(*1)

We should note that this explanation does not use the phrase “forced conscription.” Professor Chung is a prominent member of the progressive camp. The fact that he avoided using this phrase can be interpreted as indicating his recognition that the recruitment of the comfort women was not conducted by force.

The Kōno Statement

On August 4, 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kōno Yōhei issued a statement on the issue of the comfort women, including this passage: “Comfort stations were operated in response to the request of the military authorities of the day. The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved. . . . The Government study has revealed that in many cases [the comfort women] were recruited against their own will, . . . and that, at times, administrative/military personnel directly took part in the recruitments.”

In January 1997, the Asian Women’s Fund established by the Japanese government assembled seven former comfort women at a hotel in Seoul and presented each with a compensation payment of ¥2 million and a letter from the Japanese prime minister. News of the presentation ceremony at the hotel was shared with the South Korean media. This was a blunder.

The opposition movement in South Korea heated up, and the former comfort women who accepted the payments were severely condemned as traitors. Telling the local media about the event was altogether too naïve. It showed a lack of consideration for the women. The directors of the Asian Women’s Fund did not include a single person familiar with the situation in South Korea. On the contrary, those selected included figures that the South Korean government disliked. Their failure to anticipate the backlash against the payments revealed an appallingly inadequate understanding of South Korea.

Confusion Between the Comfort Women and the Volunteer Labor Corps

Sejong University Professor Park Yu-ha provided an ample explanation of the facts behind the comfort women issue in her 2013 book Women of the Empire (in Korean; published in Japanese as Teikoku no ianfu in 2014.). But she was sued for defamation, and legal moves were taken to halt publication of the book. A lower court ordered portions of the book redacted and ruled in favor of the claims for damages. This denial of academic freedom is unthinkable in a democratic country.

As Professor Park explained in her book, the accepted narrative in South Korea is that the comfort women were innocent girls forcibly taken from their homes by the Japanese military. Park rejected the conflation of the comfort women with the members of the wartime volunteer labor corps. And she denied the claim that the comfort women were taken by force.

Kim Yeong-Dal, a prominent ethnic Korean scholar in Japan, has also declared that the women’s volunteer labor corps was completely unrelated to the comfort women, asserting that the conflation of the two is a distortion of history by the Korean side.(*2) He also makes the point that the ethnic Koreans now living in Japan are not the descendants of people who were brought here by force.

Professor Park and Seoul University Professor Lee Yong-hoon have separately surveyed former comfort women and have found that in almost all of the cases they were sold to brokers under false pretenses. In 1939 Japan implemented a set of orders under which the government could mobilize males from age 14 to 40 and unmarried females from age 14 to 25 for national service. These orders did not apply to Korea, but toward the end of the war, in January 1945, the government started to mobilize women in Korea as well. The members of women’s volunteer labor corps were not comfort women. Korean scholars did not recognize this fact when they set up a support organization for the comfort women; in English it is called the “Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan,” but the full Korean name translates literally as “Korean Council on Countermeasures for the Volunteer Labor Corps Issue.”

Putting the Priority on Improved Ties

On December 28, 2015, the Japanese and South Korean governments revealed that they had reached a “final and irreversible” settlement of the comfort women issue. The two countries leaders agreed that henceforth this matter will not be treated as a diplomatic issue between them. And Prime Minister Abe Shinzō told President Park that he hopes to start a new era in the bilateral relationship.

The agreement was not in line with the positions previously stated by the two leaders. President Park had been calling for Japan to adopt a “correct view of history” and to apologize. But Prime Minister Abe had asserted that the comfort women were not forcibly conscripted by the Japanese military. The “apologies and remorse” that Abe expressed to Park were not consistent with his earlier words and deeds.

Even so, the agreement deserves high marks. As the German political scientist Max Weber wrote in Politics as a Vocation, the ideal politician is a person who can combine an “ethic of moral conviction,” with an “ethic of responsibility.”  The “ethic of moral conviction” refers to individual ideals and beliefs, such as Park’s insistence on a “correct view of history” and Abe’s belief that it is proper to visit Yasukuni Shrine.  The “ethic of responsibility” refers to taking responsibility for the results of one’s actions. When it comes to governing, responsibility for results is ultimately all that matters; the ethic of responsibility is the basis for judgment.

Park and Abe reached a settlement of the comfort women issue that placed priority on the ethic of responsibility and that at the same time paid heed to the ethic of moral conviction. As one South Korean newspaper wrote: “It is highly significant that Prime Minister Abe for the first time expressed apologies and remorse in his own words.”

The Villains in the Story

In Korea, under the influence of Confucian culture stressing ethical values, the logic of polar dichotomies and binary oppositions has long been dominant. As one Korean scholar put it, this is “a culture of two extremes, with no middle ground.” Under this “black and white” logic, Koreans are averse to the gray-area compromises and equivocal phrasing that are common in Japanese society.

This explains the prevalence of assertions that lack realistic grounding: “Japan is bad.” “The comfort women were forcibly conscripted.” “Prime Minister Abe is a militarist.” “The emperor is a pacifist.” “Japan is going to use military force to seize Dokdo [Takeshima].” In this context, it is hard for a more realistic assessment, such as “Some Japanese are good; some are bad,” to emerge.

During the Cold War, the logic that prevailed in South Korea was one of polar oppositions: “Communism is evil,” and “North Korea is a dictatorship and is crazy for war.” Under these circumstances it was necessary to have friendly relations with Japan. But with the end of the Cold War, this thinking gave way to a black-and-white logic: “China is not a threat,” and “North Korea’s leadership is not a dictatorship.” This has led to the idea that friendly ties with Japan are not needed.

China’s rise to superpower status is now putting South Korea under pressure to decide between a new pair of options. Should it align itself with the rising superpower, or should it stick with the United States and Japan? Over the long history of Sino-Korean relations, Korea was constantly under Chinese pressure and forced to accept tributary status. What we now see is a typical case of history repeating itself.

An organization that supports North Korea operates openly in South Korea, and it is a substantial force, winning around 10% of the votes in elections. The anti-Japanese movement in South Korea has constantly involved the workings of the North. The comfort women issue has also brought together North Korea and left-wing forces in both South Korea and Japan. North Korean operatives were involved in the suit filed in Tokyo on behalf of the comfort women.

As long as the Korean Peninsula is divided, the North will continue to conduct operations in the South. And South Korea is subject to pressure from superpower China. Forces that hope for the worsening of Japan–South Korea relations are at work both domestically and internationally, seeking to block calls for improved ties. South Korea cannot break away from the international politics of choosing between two options, and its leaders have an extremely difficult task steering the ship of state. This is an unenviable reality for our neighbor.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 26, 2016. Banner photo: South Korean President Park Geun-hye delivers a speech on Liberation Day, August 15, 2016, the holiday that commemorates the end of Japanese colonial rule in 1945. © Yonhap News/Aflo.)

(*1) ^ From the Japanese translation, Nikkan “rekishi tairitsu” to “rekishi taiwa” (Japan and South Korea: Confrontation and Dialogue over History) (Tokyo: Shinsensha, 2015).

(*2) ^ Chōsenjin kyōsei renkō no kenkyū (Studies on the Forced Conscription of Koreans) (Tokyo: Akashi Shoten, 2003).

South Korea comfort women