[Analysis] Comfort women agreement: a diplomatic debacle in three acts

Posted on : 2017-01-10 16:50 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Fallout from Park Geun-hye government’s blunders will hang over the next South Korean administration
Yasumasa Nagamine
Yasumasa Nagamine

The Dec. 28, 2015 agreement about the comfort women issue by the governments of South Korea and Japan - which has led to a diplomatic catastrophe - was one of a handful of major diplomatic ventures that South Korea pursued on its own since its liberation from Japanese colonial rule occupation. The dispute between the administrations of South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the comfort women has unfolded in three acts.

In the first act, Park refused to hold a summit with Abe, demanding that he first take a meaningful step toward resolving the comfort women issue. Abe countered by proposing a reassessment of the 1993 Kono Statement, which acknowledged the Japanese military’s involvement in the comfort women system and the compulsory nature of the comfort women’s recruitment. The victor in this initial skirmish was South Korea. Because of the issue’s humanitarian frame - as Japan‘s abuse of women’s human rights during wartime - no one in the international community sided with Japan. In the end, Abe had to backtrack and announced in Mar. 2014 that he would uphold the Kono Statement. This led to the beginning of bureau-chief level discussions between South Korea and Japan about the comfort women issue.

But the situation started to change at the start of the second act. Even after Abe announced that he would uphold the Kono Statement, Park still refused to hold a bilateral meeting with him. While there were numerous concerns about Park‘s rigid approach to diplomacy and her commitment to total victory, she remained inflexible. Finally, senior American officials including US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and then US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman openly criticized South Korea’s attitude, [with Sherman observing that] “it’s not hard for a political leader anywhere to earn cheap applause by vilifying a former enemy.” Sympathy for South Korea in the American government was gradually giving way to exhaustion.

The US had taken a great interest in the comfort women issue due to its connection with the larger cause of women’s rights. In July 2007, during Abe‘s first term as prime minister, the US House of Representatives even adopted a resolution about the comfort women. But in 2013, the US made the strategic decision to strengthen its alliance with Japan in order to correct the balance of power in East Asia in response to the geopolitical shift caused by the rise of China. In the end, the US upgraded its alliance with Japan from the “regional alliance” of the past to a “global alliance” during Abe’s visit to the US in Apr. 2015. As the US moved closer to Japan, South Korea’s options rapidly narrowed. Park did not object to Abe’s statement in Aug. 2015, even though that statement completely ignored Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea, and this pointed the way to the signing of the Dec. 28 agreement. Park had been too inflexible in the past, and now she was being unbelievably flexible. Park’s diplomatic blunder resulted from her failure to read the shifting trends of strategic attitudes toward the Korean Peninsula.

Virtually nobody predicted that the comfort women agreement would be signed so abruptly in Dec. 2015. Not only had Park taken every opportunity to reiterate her phrase about “a solution that is acceptable to the victims,” but government officials had made hardly any effort to meet the former comfort women before the agreement was signed. For this reason, most experts at the time predicted that the South Korean government would not sign an agreement until it had secured political cover by gaining more concessions from Japan in relation to an apology (even if it could not gain an outright victory) and using those concessions to convince the former comfort women to show some measure of support for the agreement. But these predictions were proved wrong when Seoul signed an agreement containing expressions like “irreversible” that were unilaterally favorable to Japan and permitting ambiguous interpretations of the removal of the comfort women statue. Even the Japanese were concerned about whether the agreement would actually be implemented considering how much it was tilted in their favor.

The ensuing third act was a savage time in which the roles of aggressor and victim were switched. When South Korean and Japanese civic groups asked Abe to make an apology to the former comfort women and to send them a letter, he flatly and bluntly refused. The Park administration‘s approach to the comfort women issue forced the victims to beg and allowed the aggressor to refuse.

Japan went a step further by talking about its “moral superiority” for having fulfilled its part of the agreement by donating the 1 billion yen (US$8.54 million) in Aug. 2016 and stubbornly asking the South Korean government to remove the comfort woman statue across from the Japanese embassy in Seoul. The comfort women issue used to be about unforgivable crimes perpetrated by the Japanese state, but now it is about removing the comfort women statues in South Korea. This means that South Korea is now facing the pressure that Japan ought to be under.

Now that the Park Geun-hye administration has been brought down by the candlelight rallies, Abe quickly moved on Jan. 8 to threateningly declare that the next administration is also obligated to carry out the agreement. The diplomatic debacle caused by Park and her foreign minister, Yun Byung-se will cast a long shadow over the next administration.

By Gil Yun-hyung, Tokyo correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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