30 years after first "comfort women" testimony, issues remain unresolved

Posted on : 2021-08-12 17:25 KST Modified on : 2021-08-12 17:25 KST
Academics and activists are now tackling the issue together to make progress
Kim Hak-sun (Hankyoreh photo archives)
Kim Hak-sun (Hankyoreh photo archives)

The comfort women issue, a crime against humanity committed by the Japanese military that tragically trampled on the rights of women, was uncovered 30 years ago on August 14, 1991. However, the mood for seeking redress has never been worse.

According to a document from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Japanese government will not budge "one millimeter" from the agreement signed on December 28, 2015 addressing the issue, and that the terms of the settlement agreed upon cannot be altered despite any change in government.

Momentum for the struggle to seek redress was dealt a blow by the "Yoon Mi-hyang incident," which occurred around the time of the 2020 general elections. With no possibility of a solution in sight, the situation remains in a frustrating deadlock.

Since Kim Hak-sun first brought the issue to light by raising her voice, sympathy for the pain suffered by comfort women has poured in and their reputation has been restored. Korean society has made it an "epochal project" to obtain a proper apology from the Japanese government.

At first, the Japanese government disingenuously claimed that the women were "deceived by brokers." On August 4, 1993, however, the Japanese government released the "Kono Statement" which acknowledged the military's involvement in the process of forcibly mobilizing comfort women.

Resolving this issue has been made impossible due to Japan's assertion that the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea represents the "complete and final solution." The Japanese government tried to address the problem in July 1995 with the creation of the Asian Women's Fund but insisted that they could not divest national funds from its budget due to the 1965 agreement, which had already outlined a reparation system.

Recognizing the comfort women issue as a crime against humanity, Koreans have rejected the Asian Women's Fund as it only admits to "moral" rather than "legal" responsibility. Meanwhile, three lawsuits went to court: Kim Hak-sun in December 1991, the case known as the "official trial" in December 1992, and the case involving Korean-Japanese Song Shin-do in April 1993. All three lawsuits were unsuccessful. Seeking a solution through political or legal channels has proven fruitless.

A new direction for change to address the problem developed in Korea. The Japanese courts ruled against the plaintiffs by citing discussions concerning the Korea-Japan treaty. A campaign began in Korea urging the disclosure of diplomatic documents related to these discussions. The Roh Moo-hyun administration released the documents in August 2005 which revealed that "the 1965 Treaty did not address comfort women," yet no diplomatic efforts were made to resolve the issue. Then in August 2011, the Constitutional Court announced a "historic decision" that declared as unconstitutional the South Korean government's "gross negligence" in failing to negotiate with the Japanese government properly.

Since then, diplomatic friction has developed on both sides as Korea and Japan have grappled with resolving the comfort women issue. Taken aback by the relentlessness with which the South Korean government has pressed the issue, Japan has viewed this as an "attack" on their reputation rather than an effort to redress human rights violations. Relations between Korea and Japan have rapidly deteriorated as anti-Korean sentiment has fomented in Japan.

South Korean diplomatic efforts have also run into a dead end. The Park Guen-hye administration, under pressure from the US to put up a united front to address the emergence of China, ratified the 2015 "12-28 Agreement." In this agreement, on the topic of comfort women, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared, "I feel deeply responsible" and donated 1 billion yen (US$9.05) from the national budget.

It was unclear whether Abe was referring to a "legal" responsibility or a "moral" one. For its part, the South Korean government promised that the comfort women issue was "finally and irreversibly resolved." Although the agreement was greeted with opposition from the South Korean public, the Moon Jae-in government announced in January 2018 that it would not "press for renegotiations with Japan."

Victims and their family members have tried to have the comfort women issue recognized as a crime against humanity committed by Japan through the Korean court system. On January 8, a verdict was announced in favor of the plaintiffs but was overturned by a second ruling on April 21. The court was divided as to whether "state immunity" should apply, which states that "a sovereign state cannot be made subject to another country's jurisdiction."

What is the best way forward to break this impasse? Scholars and activists are now tackling the problem by finding a consensus on what Korean society is doing to resolve the issue and to raise a collective voice against Japan. The catalyst was provided by a statement issued on March 24 signed by seven people, including Wada Haruku, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, and lawyer Uchida Masatoshi.

They acknowledged that the 2015 agreement was "incomplete" and urged the two governments to try once more to "restore the spirit of the agreement."

In Korea, efforts responding to this request have been led by the Dialogue Culture Academy and the department of Japanese studies at Seoul National University. On May 26 and June 30, academic and civic groups involved in resolving the comfort women issue gathered to engage in candid discussions. Since then, no discussions have followed as a rift developed between those who wanted to supplement the 2015 agreement and those that wanted to scrap the agreement entirely and rewrite it.

Participants of the discussion agree, however, that focus on the Kono Statement can serve as a "useful starting point" in genuine reconciliation between South Korea and Japan.

The 2015 agreement, through the expression "final and irreversible," might have sought to finally conclude the sex slavery issue, but this is because the 2015 talks with Kono emphasized the importance of remembrance, passing down and inheritance of this issue. Nam Ki-jeong, a professor at the Institute for Japanese Studies at Seoul National University and the working-level supervisor of the forum, said, "Participants disagreed over whether to supplement the [2015] agreement [presented by older Japanese figures], but many of them reconfirmed the meaning of the Kono talks and making a new start there."

Amid these developments, the government has held three meetings of a public-private conference on the comfort women formed on June 4.

Lee Na-young, president of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, said, "Despite many lingering differences in people's opinions, civic society speak in one voice to get the government to act," adding, "Through more communication between the civic societies of Korea and Japan, we will lay the basic foundation that the government can starting pondering over."

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

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

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories