Dark clouds hang over the fate of the Japan-South Korea agreement to settle the “comfort women” issue that has long strained bilateral ties. Amid the ongoing paralysis of the administration of President Park Geun-hye, who has been suspended from power following the South Korean Parliament’s vote of impeachment, a citizens’ group erected a statue symbolizing the Korean women who were forced into front-line brothels that served the Japanese military before and during World War II, right in front of the Japanese consulate general in Busan in late December. In protest, the Abe administration has temporarily called home Japan’s ambassador to Seoul and consul general in Busan. It is important for both Tokyo and Seoul to take careful steps to prevent an escalation of diplomatic tensions and keep the agreement alive.
The foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea announced in December 2015 a “final and irreversible” agreement to resolve the comfort women dispute. In the agreement, Tokyo acknowledged the involvement of the Japanese military in running the wartime military brothels and recognized that the issue deeply damaged the honor and dignity of many women — for which the Japanese foreign minister said the Japanese government felt strong responsibility. It also agreed to finance a ¥1 billion fund to be set up by the South Korean government to support surviving women. South Korea declared that its government will “make an effort” to remove a statue symbolizing the comfort women erected by a citizens’ group in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
After the statue in Busan was erected and the South Korean government took no action to remove the Seoul statue in the year that passed after the agreement was reached, the Abe administration resorted to a diplomatic protest by calling home the ambassador and the consul general. Japan is calling for removal of the two statues on the grounds that they damage the dignity of its diplomatic establishments. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, appearing on a television program last week, said South Korea must show its sincerity toward honoring the agreement by removing the statues, suggesting that Seoul’s duty to do so under the accord will not change even if Park — who oversaw the deal — is suspended from power or when a new government is established in Seoul.
The statue in Seoul was erected in 2011 when Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, was president. His administration took no action, saying that it was erected by a private-sector organization. The Park administration, apparently caught between its commitment with Tokyo and South Korean popular sentiment against the 2015 agreement, also took no steps to remove the statue. Its failure to act not only runs counter to the agreement but also may constitute a violation of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, which requires signatory countries to maintain the dignity of the diplomatic establishments of other nations. South Korea needs to realize that its inaction on the statue issue could undermine its standing in the international community.
Japan’s diplomatic protest may have been inevitable given the circumstances, but Tokyo also needs to take care to ensure that its actions do not fuel popular sentiment in South Korea in ways that escalate bilateral tensions. Its retaliatory steps also include the suspension of government talks for the resumption of a currency swap mechanism between the central banks of the two countries as well as the postponement of high-level economic talks. A heavy-handed approach to the issue could exacerbate popular sentiment against the 2015 agreement and endanger the fate of the accord itself. South Korean citizens’ groups are calling on Tokyo to admit the responsibility of past Japanese leaders for the comfort women issue and to make a formal public apology.
The turn of events in Busan points to a deep resentment among many South Koreans about the Japanese military’s use of comfort women. On Dec. 28, citizens set up a statue on the sidewalk in front of the consulate general. After local ward office workers promptly had it removed, the office was inundated with angry phone calls and unable to function. The ward mayor was forced to apologize and his office allowed the statue to be erected again on Dec. 30.
The Abe administration needs to keep in mind that, given the paralysis of the Park administration, its diplomatic measures over the dispute could inflame South Korean public opinion, which played a major role in Park’s downfall, and invite direct responses. The issue also threatens to become politicized, as opposition leaders vying for power in the South Korean presidential race this year on anti-Park platforms call for ditching or renegotiating the 2015 comfort women agreement.
The government needs to carefully examine South Korean popular sentiment on the issue as it weighs what actions to take to ensure that the dispute over the comfort women statue does not stir up anti-Japan sentiment and fuel demands in South Korea to scrap the comfort women agreement.
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