Getting beyond historyOn April 16, the day of the first official meeting between Korea and Japan to discuss the subject of wartime “comfort women,” I called five Korean authorities specializing in Japan. When I asked them whether the Japanese government would assume legal accountability, they all said, “Not possible” or “It cannot be expected.” They didn’t need to explain why. The Japanese government has consistently insisted that the comfort women issue was covered and concluded in the 1965 treaty normalizing relations between the two lands and that only humanitarian compensation could possible be considered.
Former Foreign Minister Kong No-myung recently met with some Liberal Democrats who are considered relatively moderate in Tokyo. But even they told Kong that the Japanese government’s recognition of any legal liability would not happen. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has no political reason to change that position as he continues to enjoy decent popularity. Abe and the nationalistic, conservative politicians surrounding him claim there was no coercion in the mobilization of the comfort women. Some of them make sinister suggestions that these women volunteered to go into sexual slavery, another slash at the dignity of women who were humiliated in their youth.
Kookmin University Professor Lee Won-duk says the only remaining way is to deal with the matter is though special legislation in the Japanese Diet. But it is hard to expect such legislation considering the general anti-Korean atmosphere in Japan and the power dynamics in Japanese politics in the second Abe government. Seoul National University professor Park Cheol-hee agrees. “A measure of legislation is needed for the Japanese government to take legal responsibility, but we cannot hope for it in the Abe government.” When a political leader is driven by extremism, the only brake is a healthy and responsible media. However, President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to the Dokdo islets, his demand for an apology from the Japanese emperor, and disrespectful remarks about Japan’s international status in the summer of 2012 turned the Japanese media against Korea. And the more extreme the remarks made by Abe and his followers, the more popular they become.
We hoped that things would change when the Democratic Party took over. But when it comes to sensitive subjects like the comfort women, the Democratic Party was not much different from the Liberal Democratic Party. In February 2012, Vice Foreign Minister Kenichiro Sasae of the Democratic Party government under Yoshihiko Noda proposed a three-point plan. When the leaders of Korea and Japan meet, the Japanese minister would apologize, the Japanese ambassador to Korea would visit the former comfort women and offer an apology, and compensation would be provided from a government budget. That sounded reasonable, but Dongseo University Professor Cho Se-young, who was the foreign ministry’s Asian section chief at the time, said the plan was not acceptable. “They want to take only moral responsibility, not legal accountability,” he said. “The Korean government cannot accept such a deal.” Seoul demanded a clause on Japan’s legal accountability and the deal fell apart. Japan’s trick was to avoid legal liability by offering compensation from a government budget.
The most meaningful approach from Japan’s Democratic Party government was the statement of Prime Minister Naoto Kan in August 2010 for the 100th anniversary of the Korea-Japan annexation treaty. Just like the Murayama Statement of 1995, Kan expressed “poignant repentance and sincere apology for the tremendous damage and pain that Japan’s colonial rule has brought.” While Kan’s statement contained a significant message, it was overshadowed by the Murayama Statement five years before and didn’t garner much attention, even in Korea. Now that anti-Korean sentiment is spreading across Japan, we can’t even pin our hopes on a change of government in the future. Even if the Democratic Party returns to power, we cannot expect any agreement as good as the three-point proposal of 2012, much less an apology as good or better than Kan’s in 2010.
Former Foreign Minister Kong says the Japanese no longer perceive Korea as a country that they need to have a special relationship with. They don’t consider themselves morally indebted to Korea anymore. Therefore, it’s not really desirable to continue to pressure Japan morally. While we continue to make efforts to resolve the comfort women issue, which keeps the Korea-Japan relationship in a stalemate, we need to find an exit strategy based on the fact that reconciliation is not easy at the moment and only limited cooperation is possible, just as Professor Cho said. After all, we need to choose the tactic of separating such historical issues, including the comfort women, from economic and security cooperation. Our attention must return to the geopolitical situation of Northeast Asia with North Korea’s constant security threat, Japan’s militarization, and the contest for power between the United States and China.