South Korea’s decision this week to dissolve a foundation established with Japanese funds to support the former “comfort women” who staffed wartime brothels for the Japanese military effectively guts the 2015 agreement between Tokyo and Seoul to “finally and irreversibly” settle the issue, which has been a thorn in the side of bilateral relations since the 1990s. South Korean President Moon Jae-in should consider the implications that such an act — which amounts to reneging on a diplomatic accord — will have on his country’s international credibility.
Officially, the Moon administration says it will not seek to scrap or renegotiate the agreement with Japan. But Moon, who pledged in his campaign last year to reconsider the accord struck in December 2015 by his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, has challenged the agreement as president. Last December, his government panel determined that the accord did not sufficiently reflect the opinions of the former comfort women, and Moon himself said the accord will not settle the comfort women issue — without seeking to scrap the deal.
The activities of the foundation, established in July 2016 based on ¥1 billion in funding from the Japanese government as a core program under the accord, have since been effectively frozen. Dissolving the foundation, which has provided cash relief to 34 of the 47 surviving former comfort women in South Korea as well as to the bereaved relatives of dozens of others, renders the implementation of the accord virtually impossible.
The South Korean government said its decision to dissolve the foundation is based on the “diverse opinions” that it has collected on the matter, but it seems to ignore the fact that more than 70 percent of the surviving victims have accepted relief from the foundation. Seoul reportedly wants to discuss with Tokyo what to do with the money that remains in the foundation, but the fate of such funds is not the issue.
Moon has made it a key agenda of his administration to reverse what he considers to be the policy mistakes of his conservative predecessors, including Park’s comfort women deal with Japan. Given that the agreement remains unpopular among the South Korean public, the move may win him some domestic support. However, it will cast serious doubt on the credibility of South Korean diplomacy if formal agreements with other countries can be unilaterally reversed whenever there is a change of government.
The Moon government’s decision on the comfort women foundation comes on the heels of a recent ruling by the South Korean Supreme Court that ordered a major Japanese steel-maker to pay damages to Koreans mobilized to serve as wartime labor for the firm when the Korean Peninsula was under Japan’s colonial rule — even though Tokyo and Seoul agreed to settle all issues of compensation dating back to the period of colonial rule with economic aid from Japan when the two countries normalized relations in 1965. Similar lawsuits against other Japanese companies that used wartime Korean labor are pending, and, given the top court’s ruling, more court orders for the firms to pay compensation to former workers are expected.
Such moves threaten to undermine the foundation of the bilateral relations that we have built over the past decades. In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japanese-South Korean relations are in a “severe situation,” citing the South Korean court ruling on wartime labor. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said relations between countries will be in danger if international promises are not honored.
Twenty years have passed since Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung adopted a declaration of bilateral partnership in 1998 calling for the building of a future-oriented relationship, in which Japan apologized for its past colonial rule of Korea while South Korea lauded Japan’s postwar development as a pacifist nation. That declaration was based on a posture of mutual respect by the two governments and their leaders.
Two decades on, close cooperation between Japan and South Korea is all the more important as international efforts continue to halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, which pose a serious threat to the region’s security. Japan is puzzled by the posture of the Moon administration, which is focusing on the past and appears unwilling to move our bilateral relations forward. A prolonged chill in Japan-South Korean relations will only serve to harm the efforts to denuclearize North Korea and secure the stability of the region. The South Korean government should reflect on whether its actions are contributing to the building of mutual trust with Japan at a time when it is badly needed.