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‘Comfort women’ problem requires a grand gesture

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye understand something needs to be done about the “comfort women” issue, but they still have a way to go. It is unlikely that the Dec. 28 “final and irreversible resolution” to issues surrounding the women who worked in wartime brothels at the Japanese military’s behest will prove to be much of a resolution at all. Indeed, it could easily unravel and become another bone of contention and trigger mutual recriminations.

Prospects would have been better if they had negotiated a more substantive agreement and not missed the opportunity to advance reconciliation. This would require launching a process and dialogue rather than disingenuously declaring closure concerning a past that cannot be neatly exorcised by fiat. Japan is shifting state “ownership” of this problem to South Korea, just as it tried to do back in 1965 with the normalization treaty, and it is likely to be disappointed yet again, because democracy has politicized history in South Korea.

The fudging and murky nature of the agreement is characteristic of artful diplomacy, ensuring that it falls well short of a grand gesture and thus contributes little to reconciliation. One could ask whether in fact there really is an agreement, since the statements issued and brief transcript of the phone call between Park and Abe are curiously vague on all the key points.

Already there has been sniping in both countries about what has been left deliberately oblique. For example, what is the actual sequencing of Tokyo’s promised payment of ¥1 billion (about $8.3 million)? Is Seoul required to move the comfort-women statue that peers across the street at the Japanese Embassy before Tokyo antes up? What if Seoul is unable to convince civic groups or the remaining comfort women about the necessity of moving the statue? Will Tokyo withhold the pledged disbursements? If so, the agreement will probably collapse and ignite a new round of finger-pointing and denunciations.

How will the South Korean government gain the understanding of the Korean Council to remove the statue this civic group erected in 2011 on the site where comfort women and their supporters have held weekly protests over 1,000 times during the past two decades? Given the Korean Council’s repudiation of the recent accord, how can it be convinced to help the government “solve” the problem?

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se affirmed that his government understands Japan’s position on removing the statue, and pledged to prevent “any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity” and to “strive to solve this issue in an appropriate manner through taking measures such as consulting with related organizations about possible ways of addressing this issue.”

What exactly is an “appropriate manner,” and who decides? If government discussions with the Korea Council don’t bear fruit, can Seoul explain to Tokyo that it did its best, and would Tokyo accept this as a good-faith effort and wire the funds, or resort to pulling the plug? Conversely, in the extremely unlikely event the Korea Council concedes on relocating the statue, will the South Korean government allow the weekly protests to continue? Or, would such demonstrations “impair the dignity” of the embassy and thus provide a pretext for Tokyo to renege? Would Park order security forces to quell such protests, and if so, what would be the implications for democracy?

Alternatively, to deliver what Tokyo expects, might the South Korean government remove the statue without the agreement of civic groups or the comfort women, arguing that it is in the national interest to do so? Surely that would ignite a backlash, since recent polls show 66 percent of South Koreans oppose relocation of the statue.

For the Japanese government, the statue has become a lightning rod for accumulated anger over the comfort women issue. Tokyo’s diplomats feel badly burned by the failure of the Asia Women’s Fund, which operated between 1995 and 2007, and a perception that every time they make an offer to finally settle the matter, their South Korean counterparts “move the goalposts.” Usually this refers to the South Korean insistence on the Japanese government assuming legal responsibility and providing official reparations. The recent agreement sidesteps those issues, with the Japanese government vaguely acknowledging state responsibility for the comfort women issue without admitting legal responsibility, and allocating funds from the budget earmarked for them without calling such funding “reparations.”

But can such clever evasions really consign shared history to the past? This so-called agreement seems an inadequate Band-Aid for the gaping wounds that divide these neighbors, because it resolves very little. The hedged wording provides just enough ambiguity and political cover for both sides, but it is naive to assume that such semantic parsing will really do the job.

So what comes next? More joint history study groups and grass-roots exchanges? A joint comfort women declaration signed in Washington? It seems improbable to relocate the statue to the entrance of Yasukuni Shrine’s Yushukan Museum next to the locomotive that commemorates the horrors endured by tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war and Asian forced laborers building the “Railway of Death” on the Thai-Burma border, but it’s an idea.

According to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in speaking with Park after the agreement was announced, Abe “expressed anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.” Also in 2015, Abe declared his commitment to the 1993 Kono statement that acknowledged Japan’s state and military responsibility for the comfort women system, so the stage is set for something bigger, if he is equal to the task.

Alas, it is highly unlikely that Abe will quietly kneel in front of the comfort women statue, like West German Chancellor Willy Brandt did in 1970 at the monument commemorating the Nazi-era Warsaw ghetto uprising. Such a grand gesture of contrition would enhance Abe’s stature on the world stage and do much to advance bilateral reconciliation. Hardliners in Japan closely associated with Abe would be aghast, but due to his unassailable nationalist credentials, he is uniquely positioned to make such a powerfully symbolic gesture — one that would be a major step towards improving relations between these “frenemies.” Such an act would enhance the dignity of Japan and ensure Abe’s legacy as a statesman who understands the virtues of pragmatism and humility, and how atonement is empowering. Imagine.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.