Park administration’s approach to comfort women agreement riddled with flaws

Posted on : 2015-12-30 18:33 KST Modified on : 2015-12-30 18:33 KST
Former officials and experts point to a lack of strategy and of cooperation with survivors, among other problems
Even as the government discusses the possibility of removing the peace statue of a young girl
Even as the government discusses the possibility of removing the peace statue of a young girl

“President Park Geun-hye kept putting the pressure on to resolve the comfort women issue before year’s end, and she ended up being put on the defensive by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. I can’t fathom why she rushed things like this.”

This was the view shared with the Hankyoreh on Dec. 29 by a former senior official in response to the Park and Abe administrations’ announcement the day before of an agreement to “fully and irreversibly resolve” the issue of women forced into sexual slavery under imperial Japan.

Former officials and experts with experience in negotiations with Japan pinpointed a host of problems with the latest deal: a sudden policy pivot and lack of strategy that left Seoul sacrificing its initiative, a too-casual stance on a major historical issue that many see as requiring a particular emphasis on principle, and a lack of communication with the survivors themselves and their advocacy group, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Jeongdaehyeop).

The key push for the agreement came when Park and Abe said at a summit meeting on Nov. 12 that they were “ordering the speeding up of discussions to resolve the comfort women issue as soon as possible, in consideration of next year being a major turning point as the 50th anniversary of normalizing diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan.”

 symbolizing the comfort women
symbolizing the comfort women

But Park - perhaps still dizzy from the about-face from her previously rigid stance on the matter, as expressed in a March address on the “historical perspective on aggressors and victims remain[ing] unchanged even as a thousand years of history pass” - ended up losing the initiative in the discussions to Abe.

Following an eleventh round of bureau director-level talks on the issue in Tokyo on Dec. 15, a senior Foreign Ministry official had said it “appeared unlikely” the next discussions could be managed within the year. That situation dramatically shifted on Dec. 24 when Abe ordered Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida to visit South Korea for discussions before the year’s end.

Since that day, Japan has been at the steering wheel. In a press conference on the morning of Dec. 25, Kishida and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga discussed the foreign ministers’ talks as though they were a fait accompli, but it wasn’t until four o’clock that afternoon that the Park administration announced they were going ahead. Even then, Seoul remained dismissive of the flood of reports coming from the Japanese press.

“Groundless reporting,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Cho June-hyuk on Dec. 26.

“Speculation and supposition,” scoffed a ministry official on Dec. 27.

“The problem here is the South Korean press taking dictation from the wishful thinking of the Japanese right,” insisted a Blue House source the same day.

Yet much of the supposition ended up proving accurate with the results of the talks on Dec. 28, including the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper’s Dec. 25 reports about Japan demanding a “final, irreversible solution” and Dec. 26 predictions of it “asking South Korea to consider setting up a fund and relocating the ‘little girl statue’ [a sculpture symbolizing the comfort women in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul], even if Japan puts forward the money.” On Dec. 27 and 28, the Kyodo News agency predicted that Tokyo would consider raising the ceiling on donations in consideration of Seoul’s demands for over one billion yen (US$8.3 million), while demanding that the South Korean government not bring the comfort women issue up again.

While Park made a belated move to ask for “cooperation” from the news media, even that was a matter of Seoul offering a one-sided explanation of its “achievements.” In closed-door briefing sessions with political desk heads from major news outlets on Dec. 28, the first and second vice ministers and assistant vice ministers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that the terms of the latest talks marked a step forward from the “Sasae plan” suggested by Tokyo under Park’s predecessor Lee Myung-bak. But they have also disregarded complaints that it was “unbalanced” and “going too far” for Seoul to agree on a final and irreversible solution that did not acknowledge Japan’s legal responsibility on the issue.

Perhaps the most serious issue is the administration’s disregard for Park’s repeated pledges to produce an agreement “acceptable to the victims and the public.”

The administration conducted all of its negotiations behind closed doors until after its sudden announcement of the agreement. It was only on Dec. 29 that it sent first and second vice ministers of foreign affairs to the offices of Jeongdaehyeop and the survivors’ residence at the House of Sharing in Gyeonggi Province to offer a belated explanation. During a closed-door briefing session [for the press] on Dec. 28, a senior government official went so far as to say that “the administration, the public, the comfort women survivors, and NGOs are all important to South Korea-Japan relations, but the press is an extremely important actor.”

“We would like to ask that South Korea’s press think carefully about what would be the most desirable course of action for our country, and for the comfort women survivors,” the official was quoted as saying.

It’s a message that read as a request to disregard the anticipated objections from the victims and the groups representing their interests.

By Lee Je-hun, staff reporter

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