South Korea had few incentives to resolve an issue that allowed it to exercise the moral authority of victimhood. And Japan was not shy about expressing its frustration with its neighbour’s criticism of Tokyo’s handling of past wrongs.
So how was the agreement reached, and what does it mean?
The Japan–South Korea deal over ‘comfort women’ was the work of the trilateral relationship between Japan, the United States and South Korea, out of which the United States emerged as the biggest winner and South Korea the loser.
The primary pusher of the agreement was the Obama administration. With a rising China, the United States could no longer afford for its two major allies in East Asia to be divided. Washington has been pressuring both Japan and South Korea to make mutual concessions over lingering history problems. Obama’s message was loud and clear: shake it off and move forward.
Washington has also been increasingly wary of the rising number of petitions relating to Northeast Asian politics lodged on the White House website. The Obama administration had to respond to petitions signed by over 100,000 people on territorial disputes, the establishment of statues commemorating the ‘comfort women’ on US soil and history textbooks. The ‘comfort women’ issue is increasingly becoming a domestic as well as a diplomatic issue for the United States.
In this context, President Obama emphasised the need for Japan and South Korea to mend ties and increase cooperation during his visit to Tokyo and Seoul in 2014. Obama reiterated this message by convening a tripartite meeting in The Hague later the same year.
Japan responded quickly and decisively. During his Capital Hill speech in April 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made it very clear that Japan will support the United States in seeking to contain China. Abe made two big pledges to the American government. Japan would become a more active partner in the US–Japan bilateral security relationship by enacting new national security legislation. And it would continue its conciliatory policy vis-à-vis its former victim countries in Asia. Abe assured the United States that his policy towards Japan’s war history would remain unchanged from previous administrations.
Abe lived up to his pledges. The new security law was passed in early September 2015. This revolutionary measure will reshape the scope and content of Japan’s military manoeuvrings in the global theatre. The Japanese leader also kept his promise to uphold the stance adopted in the Kono and Murayama statements. Abe extended apologies and expressed remorse over Japan’s past wrongs during his 70th anniversary statement of Japan’s defeat in 1945. Abe proved himself to be capable of not only ‘talking the talk’, but also ‘walking the walk’.
The ball was then in South Korea’s court. The current Park Geun-hye administration has been swinging between Beijing and Washington since her term began in 2013. Park, who was initially known for her anti-Japanese orientation, decided to cut a deal with Tokyo on ‘comfort women’ before the 50th anniversary year of the South Korea–Japan Normalization Treaty ended. The day the agreement was announced, 28 December, was the last working day in 2015 for both South Korea and Japan.
While Abe is enjoying rosy reviews of the agreement, the Park administration is drawing fire from various domestic corners of opposition. The surviving ‘comfort women’, a total of 46 women with an average age of 89, have not contained their anger about being excluded from the negotiation process. The compensation offered by Japan, roughly US$180,000 per person, is regarded as insufficient given the nature and duration of the victim’s suffering.
But the real hot potato is the South Korean government’s pledge to ‘strive to solve’ the issue of relocating the ‘comfort women’ statue built by activists in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul ‘in an appropriate manner’. This is not going to be an easy task. South Korean NGOs have voiced their dissatisfaction with the bilateral agreement and are planning to continue to hold their weekly Wednesday rally in front of the statue, as they have done since 1992. The Seoul government’s efforts are bound to fall short in persuading civilian activists.
The domestic backlash will come at a hefty price for the Park administration. Domestic critics will question her government’s decision to support what is seen as a last-minute trade-off between national honour and mediocre financial gains. Park’s party is expected to suffer repercussions in the upcoming general elections this April. Competing against Abe to respond to US pressure to come to an agreement was certainly politically costly.
In Japan, the general atmosphere is one of relief. An irreversible deal has finally been struck, and it exempts Japan’s future generations from being held accountable for the sins committed by their forefathers. The only remaining chore is the government’s funding of the agreed 1 billion yen (about US$8.3 million) in compensation.
More than anything, the agreement has proven that US leadership is alive and well in East Asia. The agreement is a powerful reminder to China that the US pivot to Asia is a viable strategy. China’s ability to use the history card against Japan will lose its steam with South Korea’s concession. And collaborative efforts by China and South Korea, such as the joint application to include records relating to ‘comfort women’ in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, will be put on hold. The Obama administration has managed to send a clear message to President Xi Jinping that East Asia is still under US headship.
Mikyoung Kim is an associate professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute, Hiroshima City University.