If allowed to spiral out of control, Japan’s and South Korea’s domestic nationalist fervour against each other could further damage already fragile ties.
The issue was settled in a 2015 bilateral agreement between Tokyo under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Seoul under President Park Geun-hye. In 2015, a statement on behalf of Prime Minister Abe was released expressing Japan’s “sincere apologies and remorse”. Japan had also offered 1 billion yen as a token of apology for the welfare of the victims. The agreement had pledged to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the comfort women issue. However, the statements made by then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shortly after the agreement of there being no records which proved that the victims were forcibly taken away, sparked outrage in South Korea. Moreover, many South Korean comfort women survivors outrightly rejected the 2015 agreement saying that it was arrived at without taking them into confidence. Park’s successor President Moon-Jae-in was critical of the agreement and appointed an independent Special Task Force in 2017 to investigate the deal as soon as he took charge. The Task Force criticised the deal as flawed and was severe upon the previous administration for not conducting direct hearings with the surviving victims themselves. President Moon used the findings of the task force to validate his stand and scrapped the deal. In response, Japan released a statement that any unilateral attempt to revise or renegotiate the 2015 agreement will have serious repercussions for Japan–South Korea relations. Bilateral relations between the two have been on a downward spiral ever since.
Park’s successor President Moon-Jae-in was critical of the agreement and appointed an independent Special Task Force in 2017 to investigate the deal as soon as he took charge.
Talking about South Korea, its society has been battling hard to come to terms with the historical burden of the issue, as the harsh realities still haunt their collective psyche. For example, the women who served as the aforementioned sex workers were beaten, tortured, and raped which even led many to take their own lives, including young girls. The survivors have had to live a life full of stigma, trauma, and mental pain. Needless to mention, Korea’s relations with Japan have been majorly influenced by the question of settlement of the comfort women issue. Moreover, domestic politics in both Japan and South Korea refuse to douse the fire over the issue. While Japan’s case has been earlier explained in the context of the rise of new-age politicians and young voters who don’t relate to issues of the ‘past’, the rise of nationalism in Japan also feeds into this. The likes of former Prime Ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe have built and nurtured their vote banks on the plank of “non-interference by neighbouring countries in Japan’s domestic issues”, often yielding electoral success. When on 8 January 2021, a local court in Seoul asked the Japanese government to pay heavy compensation to each of the 12 surviving “comfort women”, then Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took a hard stance and outrightly rejected the ruling saying that the court has no jurisdiction over Japan, a sovereign nation. He said that “the ruling will never be accepted”. Many linked Tokyo’s sharp riposte to the ruling to Suga’s low domestic approval ratings at that time. It was interpreted that he could use the issue to foment nationalism to boost his political ratings.
The agreement facilitated a lump sum payment of US$ 300 million from Japan to South Korea as a means of reparation concerning the claims arising from the period of Japan’s annexation of Korea.
Allies by necessity Fastrack to July 2022, both domestic equations and regional geopolitics surrounding the two countries are vastly different. Japan and South Korea, incidentally both key allies of the US in the region, have many common challenges which they ought to navigate together. On 24 May, when US President Joe Biden was in Tokyo attending the in-person QUAD meeting, six fighter aircrafts of Russia and China composed of Russian TU-95 MS and Chinese H-6K strategic bombers conducted a joint air patrol over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, as a show of deepening ties between Moscow and Beijing. Incidentally, both Japan and South Korea scrambled fighter jets to thwart the Russian and Chinese bombers. Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said that this year’s edition was more provocative than the previous ones as they were conducted during the QUAD summit. The increasing Chinese belligerence in the post-COVID era is a major challenge for both Tokyo and Seoul. Other than the recent air patrols with Russia, China continues to needle Japan in the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. South Korea too has been targeted given the reports of the former’s purported installation of US Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile batteries in its territory. There is a growing perception in South Korean strategic circles that China has been pressurising South Korea to compromise on its national security needs. On its part, China has indicated to President Yoon that it shall not tolerate any deviation from the “three noes” framework established with the previous administration under former President Moon Jae-in, i.e. no new THAAD batteries in South Korea, no US-Japan-South Korea trilateral missile defence system and no US-Japan-South Korea security alliance. In what could be a major boost to South Korea-Japan relations, Yoon has insisted on improving ties with Japan ever since he took over. In fact, in April when he was the President-elect, he had led a South Korean delegation to Tokyo to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to help reset bilateral ties. The delegation even released a statement regarding the visit saying that their objective “was to fasten the first button of a new Korea-Japan relationship”. Since assuming charge, President Yoon has pushed to bolster the US–Japan–South Korea trilateral security cooperation along the lines of the GSOMIA, the continuation of which was under threat until recently. Although such cooperation is ostensibly aimed to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat and missile launches, it would be interpreted by China as a direct violation of one of the “three noes”.
Japan and South Korea, incidentally both key allies of the US in the region, have many common challenges which they ought to navigate together.
Japan needs to understand the pain and grief caused by its colonial rule in Korea and its lingering effects, whereas South Korea needs to understand that post-war Japan has adopted pacifism not only as a state-ordained policy but as a “way of life” for its people.
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Amlan Dutta is a former Assistant Professor at Rashtriya Raksha University (An Institution of National Importance) Gandhinagar Gujarat. He is also a PhD Candidate (SRF) ...Read More +