Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Aug 06, 2022 Updated 8 Days ago
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.
"Comfort Women" issue and its impact on Japan-South Korea relations South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin’s recent visit to Tokyo for a meeting with his Japanese counterpart Yoshimasa Hayashi was perhaps the first critical regional engagement for Japan since the shocking assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on 8 July in his home town Nara. The meeting also comes amidst the backdrop of the change of guard in Seoul with new President Yoon Suk-yeol assuming charge in May. The discussions during the meeting brought back the “comfort women” issue, which has been plaguing bilateral relations for quite some time. “Comfort women” is a euphemism used to denote the around 20,000 women, mostly Korean, who were forced into sexual slavery to serve the Japanese military fighting in World War II.

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 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.

Japan’s ‘kowtow diplomacy’ and relations with South Korea

Contextually speaking, it is easy to lambast Abe and pinpoint the ensuing diplomatic fallout to his “insensitive” statements, given the emotive nature of the issue. But to comprehend his stance, one must understand Japan’s electoral politics. In Japan, “apology politics” has for long been heavily criticised by the new-age LDP politicians, interestingly led by Abe himself, who opined China and the two Koreas have exploited the same to undermine Japan’s standing in the international community. Referred to as “kowtow diplomacy”, even the young voters of Japan do not find resonance with their government’s stance. The crux of the present dispute is a 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court of South Korea which ordered Japanese private companies to compensate workers who were forcibly hired by Japan during World War II. While the South Korean government threw its weight behind the ruling, the Japanese government rejected it saying it violates the Japan-South Korea bilateral agreement of 1965. Japan maintains that its official position related to all issues during its colonial rule in Korea, including the comfort women issue, was settled as per the 1965 agreement. 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. Post the 1965 agreement, the issue was again addressed through the 1993 Kono statement and the 1995 Murayama statement. Plus, Japan had also taken the lead in establishing an Asian Women’s Fund in 1994 to provide monetary compensation to the comfort women survivors. Now that even the 2015 agreement was scrapped, there is a strong sense of fatigue in Japan as to whether the issue will ever be settled.

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.

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.

Geopolitical fallout of “comfort women” issue

In 2019, in retaliation to the South Korean court’s 2018 ruling against Japan, the latter decided to remove South Korea from the Most-Favoured Nation (MFN) list of trading partners and placed several curbs on high-tech industrial products. South Korea not only reciprocated but also upped the ante. Vowing that “South Korea would not be defeated by Japan again”, the Moon Jae-in administration announced that it shall withdraw from the critical three-nation military information sharing agreement including the US and Japan called General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Ever since its inception in 2016, the agreement has been extremely important for both South Korea and Japan in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat. Although the decision was reversed at the last moment, it shows how fragile even the security aspect of Japan-South Korea relations is with the comfort woman issue unresolved.

Japan and South Korea, incidentally both key allies of the US in the region, have many common challenges which they ought to navigate together.

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”.

US’ role in mending Japan-South Korea relations

On its part, Washington has been trying hard to convince both Japan and South Korea to amicably resolve all outstanding historical issues to present a common front against Beijing. The US administration under President Biden has been committed to bringing both Tokyo and Seoul on the same page when it comes to dealing with North Korea and China. In May this year, Biden embarked on a five-day tour to South Korea and Japan. Given the Russia-Ukraine war, the US has been forced to commit its resources and strategic focus back to the Eurasian heartland. The significance of Biden’s Asian tour is that it has compelled the US to focus on the Indo-Pacific once again. Biden’s visit reassured his two most important allies in the region, which is a departure from his predecessor’s style and intent. The Ukraine issue saw leaders of all three countries adopt a strong posture against Russia’s unilateral measures and vow to rally behind Ukraine, a fellow democracy. Incidentally, along with the US, both Japan and South Korea joined the economic sanctions campaign to deter and punish Russian aggression as early as February itself.

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.

Conclusion

Despite the newly rekindled strategic bonhomie, Japan and South Korea would be wary of the fact that if allowed to spiral out of control, their domestic nationalist fervour against each other could further damage their already fragile ties. Although the foreign ministers’ meeting indicated warmth between Japan and South Korea, it remains to be seen how much they can forge ahead with the historical issue of the “comfort women” yet to be resolved. Diplomatic niceties notwithstanding, such meetings didn’t yield the desired results in the past, especially given the sensitivity of the issue and the domestic politics-cum-public emotions attached on both sides. 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. The future generations of both nations would be better served this way. A practical component of the solution would be to invoke the arbitration clause of the 1965 agreement when any dispute arises between the two sides. Article III.2 and Article III.3 of the agreement state that the Republic of Korea is under obligation by the constitution of an arbitration board to address the dispute. Also, the South Korean government is to choose a third country the government of which shall designate an arbitrator. South Korea is yet to abide by either of them and as such an arbitration board is yet to be constituted. Such a board would play a positive role in stabilising Japan-South Korea relations especially when historical issues such as that of the “comfort women” threaten to rock the boat. In the day and age of intense geopolitical rivalry, a stable, prosperous, and forward-looking Japan-South Korea relationship is crucial for the future of the Indo-Pacific region. Both China and Russia would be closely watching.
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Contributor

Amlan Dutta

Amlan Dutta

Dr. Amlan Dutta is a Junior Fellow at the Prime Minister's Museum and Library (PMML), Teen Murti House, New Delhi, where he is working on ...

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