Meaning of 12/28/2015 Japan and South Korea’s Agreement on Comfort Women

On December 28, 2015, it was announced by the governments of South Korea and Japan that they had reached an agreement to settle the decades-old dispute on the Comfort Women issue.  Just exactly what was that agreement, and did it settle this long dispute between South Korea and Japan?  This article discusses these questions.

What was the “agreement”?  The Foreign Minister of South Korea Mr. Yun Byung Se and the Foreign Minister of Japan Mr. Fumio Kishida in a news conference in Seoul on December 28, 2015 announced an agreement on comfort women.  The main points of the agreement were:

  • Japan expressed sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.  This apology was also expressed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a telephone call to South Korean President Park Geun-hye on December 28, 2015.
  • The Japanese government pledges $8.3 million funding to a foundation established by the South Korean government to provide care for the South Korean comfort women.
  • The South Korean government promised that she will seek a resolution to remove the comfort women statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
  • This agreement would be a final and irreversible resolution on the comfort women issue.

The agreement expressed an apology and remorse by Japan on the sufferings experienced by the comfort women, but it did not acknowledge any responsibility that the Japanese government was responsible for it.  In other words, the Japanese government accepts no legal responsibility for causing this injustice.  The $8.3 million payment can be interpreted to be a humanitarian contribution by the Japanese government, and not a legal reparation for the injustice she inflicted.

There is no mention of any follow-on action to help educate the people of Japan (and the world) on the role of the Japanese government in causing this most inhumane atrocity on hundreds of thousands of women and girls, so that this kind of atrocity will not be repeated again in the future.  The purpose of the agreement seems to be just the opposite, so that the issue of comfort women will never be raised again.  On Japan’s request to remove the comfort women statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, as a comparison, one should ask “Did Germany ever request the removal of any Holocaust memorial or remove that part of history from their textbooks?”

What was the response of the South Korean comfort women and organizations who have championed the comfort women issue?   The response has been swift and overwhelmingly against the so called “agreement.”  For example, on the same day December 28, 2015, six organizations that have championed the comfort women issue in South Korea, including the “House of Sharing” and “The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan” issued a joint statement.  Here are excerpts from that joint statement:

  • “Although the Japanese government announced that it ‘feels [its] responsibilities’ the statement lacks the acknowledgment of the fact that the colonial government and its military had committed a systematic crime.  The government had not just been simply involved but actively initiated the activities which were criminal and illegal.”
  • “The announcement specified that Korean government will be responsible for establishing the foundation, despite the fact that Japanese government must be actively involved in follow-up initiatives, including acknowledgement of its criminal responsibilities and legal reparation.  It appears that Japan will pass the future responsibilities on to the government of the victims’ country after simply paying off the money.”
  • “It is notable that the Agreement did not specify anything on preventative initiatives such as truth seeking and history education.”
  • “The Korean government’s attitude towards this Agreement, which is vague and incomplete, is rather shocking.  …  Meanwhile, the Korean government promised that it will seek a resolution for the matter of the Peace Monument in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in order to maintain the dignity of the Embassy, and will limit its criticism against Japanese government internationally.  This is diplomatic humiliation.”
  • “The Korean government accepted the Japanese government’s absurd condition on the Agreement which demanded the removal of the Peace Monument.  Moreover, the attitude of the former which declared that it will not even mention the military sexual slavery issue in the future is shameful and disappointing.”
  • “The Peace Monument cannot be a condition or means for any Agreement.  It is a public property and a historic symbol representing the peaceful spirit of the Wednesday Demonstrations, which has been continued by the survivors and the citizens for over a thousand Wednesdays.  The Korean government cannot mention anything about the removal or moving the Monument.  While the survivors and the civil society cannot accept the Agreement, the governments cannot push their own agenda.  Such an act of arrogation only adds to the pain of the victims even more.”
  • “All these years, the survivors, supporting civil society organizations and citizens demanded that Japanese government acknowledge its national, legal responsibilities clearly and commit to due diligence in order to recover dignity and human rights of the survivors and prevent any such tragedy in the future.  However, the Agreement today is only a diplomatic collusion which betrays the demands from all.”

Grandma Lee Yong-soo, 88, one of the former comfort women, said “We are not craving for money.  What we demand is that Japan make official reparations for the crime it had committed.  This agreement seems to have been made without having the victims in mind.  I dismiss it in its entirety.”

What has been the response from the rest of the world who have been involved in this issue?  People across the world who have been following the comfort women issue have also responded essentially unanimously against the “agreement.”  Many stake holders, such as the Comfort Women Justice Coalition (CWJC) and the Korean American Forum of California (KAFC), have issued press statements to denounce the agreement, with comments such as:

  • The comfort women victims were never consulted about the terms of the agreement.
  • The comfort women feel that they are pawns in a political maneuver.
  • The agreement would muzzle South Korea from ever bringing up the comfort women topic in the future.
  • With respect to Japan’s demand that the comfort women peace symbol in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul be removed, they comment “When do criminals ever get to make demands and set conditions when they apologize for their crimes?”

As though the words chosen in the agreement and their ambiguity did not already convey the Japanese government’s insincerity, on the day that this agreement was announced, the wife of Prime Minister Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo where 14 Class A convicted and executed Japanese WWII war criminals are enshrined.

In addition, only three weeks after the so-called “breakthrough” agreement which was supposed to be final and irreversible, the same Japanese Foreign Minister Mr. Kishida denied that comfort women were sex slaves.

U.S. government’s position:  The U.S. government welcomed the agreement.  Secretary of State John Kerry said “We applaud the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea for having the courage and vision to reach this agreement, and we call on the international community to support it.”  But the U.S. government apparently also ignored the strong sentiments of the South Korean people.

The comfort women issue has been a long standing dispute between Japan and South Korea.  Even as late as March 2014 when President Obama tried to bring Prime Minister Abe and President Park together in Europe, they barely looked at each other.  Why did President Park compromise so much now?  The South Korean government did not consult with any of the people or organizations that have been deeply involved in the comfort women issue for years or even decades, and the South Korean government should know that these people and organizations have broad support among the South Koren people.  Therefore, a natural question to raise is what pressure did the U.S. exert on South Korea and what were promised to President Park for her to change her mind and concur with this agreement?  How far will the U.S. government go in terms of ignoring global moral responsibility in order to pivot to Asia to isolate, surround, and weaken China?

Conclusion:  The so-called breakthrough agreement between South Korea and Japan announced on December 28, 2015 on the long-standing dispute on comfort women is far from a breakthrough agreement.  As a matter of fact, it raised more issues than resolving issues.  It definitely did not reflect the sentiments of the South Korean people, especially the former comfort women and the organizations that have championed their cause for decades.  Its apology lacked sincerity, and it did not acknowledge and assume responsibility for the atrocity that the Japanese government inflicted on innocent women and girls.  It did not mention any follow-on action to educate people about what happened in the past so that these wrongs will not be repeated in the future.  Its purpose seemed to be just the opposite, so that this issue will never be raised again in the future.

The fact that President Park seemed to have changed her mind in the last year on this long-standing, important issue, while going against the sentiments of her people, raises the question on the complicity played by the U.S. government, in particular, what pressure did the U.S. exert on South Korea and what were promised to President Park by the U.S. government?

Finally, besides the comfort women in Korea, there were many other comfort women in other parts of Asia, such as China, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, etc.  What is Japan going to do to right the injustices inflicted on these other women and girls?

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