One step closer to compromiseOver the past year, Korea and Japan’s foreign ministries have held eight rounds of director-general level talks regarding reparations for “comfort women,” the thousands of young women and girls forced by the Imperial Japanese Army to serve in military brothels during World War II.
“We have no final agreement, but it’s getting close,” said a senior-level source well-informed about the progress of the talks.
The comment is in line with the views of President Park Geun-hye expressed in an interview with the Washington Post on June 11. “There has been considerable progress on the ‘comfort women’ issue, and we are in the final stages of our negotiations,” Park was quoted as saying, referring to the victims by the commonly used euphemistic term.
After the interview, Japan responded that it was difficult to assess from what perspective there had been “considerable progress.”
Korea Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se is visiting Japan for the first time, and cabinet officials from both countries will attend celebrations in Seoul and Tokyo today to mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between Korea and Japan. Taking into account the series of developments, Park’s comment, as well as that by the high-ranking source, appear to hold some promise.
Since last year, the Barack Obama administration has strongly pushed Tokyo and exerted subtle pressure on Seoul to repair ties. When Abe visited the United States in April, Washington gave him a passionate welcome, while at the same time pressuring him to resolve thorny historical issues.
As a result, Abe took it one step further and vowed he would generally respect and uphold the 1993 Kono and 1995 Murayama Statements, which acknowledged and apologized for Japan’s involvement in the recruitment and abuse of thousands of women from colonial territories.
Before Abe slightly curbed his stance under pressure from the United States and the international community, Park had already demonstrated her determination to improve Korea-Japan relations. Her decision to appoint Yoo Heung-soo - a former veteran lawmaker and longtime ally of Japan - as Korean ambassador to Japan was also a clear expression of such an intent.
There are various reasons to improve Korea-Japan ties as soon as possible, but five are particularly important.
First, this year has a symbolic meaning in that it marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations as well as the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Second, while Republican administrations in the United States are typically relatively indifferent to Korea-Japan relations, Democratic administrations are usually more active toward the issue. So it is perhaps a better opportunity for Korea and Japan to mend fences.
Third, with Park entering the second half of her presidential term, it will be difficult for her administration to get another chance after this year.
Fourth, China’s attempts to expand its territory and install more military facilities through a reclamation project in the South China Sea are having an impact on Korea, and there is now a geopolitical demand for cooperation among Japan, Korea and the United States.
Fifth, a joint response by all three allies is necessary to counter the nuclear threat from North Korea.
The three main rifts between Korea and Japan revolve around the comfort women issue, Dokdo and wartime history. Dokdo is an issue that cannot be resolved, while the history issue is a long-term challenge. That leaves us with the comfort women and Japan’s responsibility to them.
But Abe’s tendencies toward historical revisionism have gone too far. Despite the president’s optimism, a few details that require patience from negotiators still remain to be resolved before a deal can be struck.
One obstacle concerns Japan’s attempt to list 23 industrial areas from the Meiji Restoration as Unesco World Heritage sites. Of them, seven were where conscripted Korean laborers were forced to work as slaves. Korea has said they can be listed, but only if the inhumane and brutal treatment toward those workers is made public.
Auschwitz, the concentration camp where most Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site because it provides the truth of the genocide in great detail.
Japan even wants the statue of a girl in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, which represents the comfort women, to be removed. That’s an issue that would require the Korean government to consult with the survivors, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and the public - but only after the comfort women issue is concluded.
Because of such sensitive obstacles, another senior diplomatic source corrected Park’s remarks in the Washington Post interview, saying the two countries were only approaching the final stages of negotiations.
He also denied Japanese media reports that Shotaro Yachi, national security adviser to the cabinet and the strategist for Abe, will visit Korea.
However, he added that Yachi has maintained a relationship with Blue House Chief of Staff Lee Byung-kee since Lee’s days as the Korean ambassador to Japan, supporting Park’s remarks that Seoul and Tokyo are having “behind-the-scenes discussions.”
That fueled speculation that Lee and Yachi are in final negotiations to strike a deal.
What’s desperately needed is bold political determination by the leaders of Korea and Japan to take the last step. In the world of diplomacy, no one ever boasts a complete victory. At this stage, we need to define what level of an apology by Abe is acceptable so that we can say one of the most tricky issues is finally settled.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 19, Page 31
*The author is a senior columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie