Experts look for way through thicket of Seoul-Tokyo issues

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Experts look for way through thicket of Seoul-Tokyo issues


Fifty years after the normalization of bilateral ties between Korea and Japan, the two countries still struggle to find common ground on issues of history, but are attempting to close the gap on the most pressing, that of the Japanese military’s wartime sexual slavery.

Over the decades, the role of scholars, civil activists, lawyers, the victims themselves and the government has been pivotal in raising awareness of issues that weren’t resolved by the 1965 normalization treaty, which opened the door for diplomatic and economic cooperation.

Experts and government officials say some issues will not see a resolution any time soon, such as the Dokdo territorial dispute. Likewise, the overarching problem of the two countries’ different understanding of history is difficult to fully resolve.

Park Pae-keun, professor of international law at the Pusan National University School of Law, said, “The Dokdo territory issue is one that does not look like it’s going away any time soon, and it is a difficult one for Japan to approach as well.”

The Korean position is that the Dokdo islets in the East Sea are its territory historically, geographically and under international law, and no dispute exists. Japan also claims the islets, calling them Takeshima.

Another key issue, of Koreans conscripted by the Japanese government and companies during colonial rule, is considered partially resolved by the Korean government and through the 1965 “Agreement on the Settlement of Problems concerning Property and Claims and the Economic Cooperation.” The victims and their families also have the option to file individual claims.


An international group of scholars and lawyers discuss the Korea-Japan agreement that led to the normalization of bilateral ties during a two-day conference at the Northeast Asia History Foundation (NAHF) in central Seoul on Monday. From left, Alexis Dudden, professor at the University of Connecticut; Doh See-hwan, NAHF research fellow; Ma Guang, professor at Zhejiang University; Lee Jang-hie, professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies; Seo Hyun-ju, NAHF researcher; Park Byung-do, professor at Konkuk University; and Kim Mi-kyung, a lawyer representing conscripted labor victims. Provided by the foundation

“However, the key issue is that of the comfort women, as it is one that we have limited time to resolve as the victims are elderly, and it is one we can actively try to resolve,” Park added.

With two more deaths this month, there are just 50 surviving victims of the 238 former sex slaves registered with the Korean government. The government is officially negotiating with Japan to resolve the issue of an apology and reparations to these women.

President Park Geun-hye has said she will not hold a summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe until Japan has shown a sincere attitude toward dealing with the comfort women issue.

Since April 2014, following a trilateral leaders’ summit between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, Korea and Japan began holding regular director-general meetings between the two countries’ foreign ministries to resolve the issue.

On Sunday, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se made his first visit to Tokyo since he took office and met with his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida.

The following day, President Park attended a Japanese Embassy-hosted event in Seoul to mark the 50th anniversary of bilateral ties, considered a strategic time to mend fences. Prime Minister Abe also attended a Korean Embassy event in Tokyo, signaling a positive turn in the neighbor’s relations and increasing the likelihood of a bilateral leaders’ summit in the near future, the first since Abe and Park took office.

“We have to pursue an apology that is acceptable to the victims,” said Professor Park. “There is also domestic debate on what is considered a sincere enough gesture toward the comfort women victims. However, the victims request an official apology from the Japanese government, compensation, a memorial and education on the issue for future generations.”

Scholars weigh in

To coincide with the 50th anniversary of bilateral ties on Monday, some 40 history and legal scholars tackled the topic “Reflection Upon the Korea-Japan Agreement in 1965 and Future Prospects for a Peace Community” at a two-day international conference held in Seoul over Monday and Tuesday.

It was hosted by the Northeast Asia History Foundation and the Korean Branch of the International Law Association. Korean, American, Chinese and Japanese scholars discussed the complexities of the 1965 agreement, and urged the Japanese government to hear the international call for an official apology for colonial rule.


President Park Geun-hye, left, at a reception in Seoul hosted by the Japanese Embassy to mark the 50th anniversary of Korea-Japan diplomatic ties on Monday. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, at a Korean Embassy reception in Tokyo on the same day. [Joint Press Corps], [AP/NEWSIS]

Alexis Dudden, a history professor at the University of Connecticut, said during a panel discussion, “There are to me two kinds of responsibilities we are talking about. Moral responsibility and legal responsibility .?.?. The government of Japan has taken moral responsibility but for the issue to move forward, it should take legal responsibility.”

She pointed out that Abe referred to the comfort women as “human trafficking” victims but failed to finish the sentence - to make it clear that the women had been trafficked by Japan.

“Even in Japan, coercion was illegal at that time, including coercion by deceit,” she continued, “as was forced child labor and forced child prostitution. We know the age of these girls, and they are legally classified as children. This was illegal then as it is now.”

Dudden led a group of 20 U.S. historians in publishing a letter condemning the Shinzo Abe government’s tendency to historical revisionism and suppressing historical truths printed in its schools’ history textbooks.

This was in response to Japan’s move at the end of last year to pressure American publisher McGraw-Hill Education through lobbying efforts in Washington over a history textbook that described in detail Japan’s record of wartime sexual slavery.

“Moral responsibility is necessary, to be sure,” said Dudden. “Yet for any apology to honor the dignity of the victims of this system, and perhaps more important to the future, for any apology to re-inscribe the human rights of the victims and of all victims of sexual slavery practiced today around the world .?.?. it is critical for the Japanese state to take legal responsibility for this egregious human rights crime.”

Prime Minister Abe has made numerous controversial remarks on whether there was actual coercion involved to recruit women into sexual slavery by the Japanese military, and even questioning the definition of “invasion” and “aggression” in Japan’s past.

Korea and Japan have faced diplomatic tensions because of Abe’s right-wing tendency toward historical revisionism.

“Japanese right-wingers have distorted views of history and they use incorrect expressions, such as ‘human trafficking,’ without specifying who is responsible, raising concerns that Japan is trying to go back to the wartime era,” said Doh See-hwan, research fellow at the Northeast Asian History Foundation. “At the same time, Japan is pushing for the right of collective self-defense [coming to the aid of an attacked ally] while Japan has been denying its colonial rule aggressions.”

The Abe administration has been moving to revise laws to enable its right to exercise collective self-defense, or the right to wage war outside its borders.

On July 1, 2014, Abe decided on an unconventional interpretation of Japan’s postwar constitution to enable collective self-defense through a cabinet decision.

Abe is pushing to amend Article 9 of the constitution which stipulates pacifism, which would also require the amendment of Article 96, which dictates an amendment procedure.

Seoul has stated that it is open to military cooperation with Japan. Washington encourages trilateral cooperation in light of the nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

However, there is also trepidation that the Abe government might return Japan to its militaristic past.

Korea has maintained that security cooperation with Japan and the United States is desirable. But at the same time, Japan’s rising militarism is a concern “because it is reminiscent of a time when the Japanese government invaded Korea and subjected the peninsula to 35 years of colonial rule - for which Tokyo has never officially apologized for,” Doh pointed out.

Japan unlikely to apologize

Even half a century ago, the United States had an role in prodding along the negotiation process between Korea and Japan to normalize bilateral ties.

Washington wanted to cement its security presence in Northeast Asia amid the rise of Communist China.

Talks between Seoul and Tokyo began under President Syngman Rhee’s government in 1951 but gained momentum in the Park Chung Hee administration, and rapidly advanced through a breakthrough deal between Korean Central Intelligence Agency Director Kim Jong-pil and Japanese Foreign Minister Masayoshi Ohira in November 1962.

Even at that time, U.S. officials encouraged Tokyo to issue an official apology for its colonial rule.

During the height of the negotiations between Seoul and Tokyo to normalize bilateral relations, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer tried to talk Tokyo into changing its mind and apologizing to Korea for past atrocities.

In 1964, Reischauer met with Foreign Minister Shiina to persuade Japan to apologize for the past. In a visit to Seoul in 1961, Shiina had indicated “deep regrets” for Japan’s past actions, which in turn paved way to the conclusion of the Korea-Japan Basic Relations Treaty and accompanying accords four years later.

But in a telegram from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to the State Department dated Sept. 8, 1964, Reischauer specified, “Clear Japanese apology for their colonial oppression of Korea in the past would, of course, make a major contribution to improved Korean attitudes toward Japan...” He added, “Japanese officials and public simply do not feel they owe any apology to Korea.”

As the two sides closed in on sealing a deal, Reischauer wrote in another telegram dated Nov. 21, 1964, “I pointed out that most helpful act of magnanimity toward Korea would be some sort of apology to Koreans for the colonial past. Shiina replied that any attempt along these lines would probably either arouse strong adverse reaction in Japan or else prove worse than unsatisfactory to Koreans.”

On June 22, 1965, at the signing of the basic treaty, Shiina said to the Korean people that “the unfortunate times” between the two countries long history “is truly regrettable and we are deeply remorseful.”

When questioned by a Japanese lawmaker in the Diet on Nov. 5, 1965, on individual claims, Shiina replied, “I don’t think it is correct to say that individual claims have been given up.”

Likewise, during a Diet budget committee meeting on Aug. 27, 1991, Shunji Yanai, director-general of the Japanese Foreign Ministry Treaties Bureau, also said Article 1 of the 1965 Claims Agreement “does not mean that individuals’ claims were extinguished in the domestic legal context.”

On Feb. 26, 1992, in a foreign affairs committee meeting in the lower house, he said, “Koreans are not obstructed from raising lawsuits before Japanese domestic courts.”

Prof. Lee Jang-hie of the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies School of Law said, “The problem is, the Japanese war criminals who ended up returning to and rebuilding Japanese postwar society did not face historical justice.”

Japan’s stance started to change after 2000 as more compensation cases were filed by Korean victims of Japan’s forced wartime mobilization and the comfort women issue was gaining more international recognition. Weaker legal arguments such as the statute of limitations having expired could be easily overturned and were questioned in some lower Japanese courts.

Thus Japan has since taken the hard-line stance that is now its government’s official position: that the right to claim compensation was completely and finally resolved with the 1965 Korea-Japan Claims Agreement.

“At that time, Japan wanted to escape responsibility for the illegal annexation of Korea or other crimes against the Korean people,” said Japanese human rights lawyer and legal scholar Etsuro Totsuka. “Some Japanese people might have asked, why does Japan have to pay Korea? But conservative Japanese politicians at that time said the price was a cheap one taking into consideration those who died or were harmed during colonial rule.”

He added that a former vice chairman of the Japanese House of Representatives alleged in 1965 that 143,000 young girls and women had died in enslavement.

He pointed to remarks by a late senior politician, Seijuro Arafune, later revealed through notes from a 1992 lecture at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. “He tried to persuade his supporters that the amount of money Japan paid to Korea in 1965 was very reasonable if they considered such facts. For Japan, the normalization treaty was considered advantageous as it helped Japan escape from such great crimes.”

Totsuka said while the comfort women issue was not brought up in discussions by negotiators, “it should be suspected that Japanese conservative senior politicians had secret information.”

Scholars recognize the efforts of Japan to address some of the issues over the years, including the Kono Statement of 1993 and Murayama Statement of 1995, now considered standards of apologies.

While the Abe government has said it would “uphold” apologies by past prime ministers, the key concern is that Abe in his August statement will drop specific wording from the previous statements, as he did in Washington.

Many scholars point to the German postwar example of apologizing and compensating Holocaust victims, but such a thorough solution is not expected from Japan.

“Japan is not able to follow Germany’s path, based on the Japanese leadership’s continued use of offensive words,” Professor Park said. “That is because the root of the problem runs deep. Germany made clear a postwar policy [resolving its past issues] as its new starting point. Japan was not able to do this, hence such troubles continue all these decades later.”

“We need to liberate the present from the past and the future from past,” said Lee, “and this can be realized by building a civil society across a framework of human-oriented society in Northeast Asia, which has been left behind in the Cold War regime, and Japan is at the center of this. If Japan does not apologize sincerely, we cannot advance.”

One step at a time

As greater understanding of what was and wasn’t covered under the 1965 agreement was unveiled, the Korean government has made attempts to compensate victims of colonial rule. Though initial compensation between 1975 and 1977 was considered too little, the government in November 2004 launched an investigative committee into the issue of Koreans conscripted into hard labor by the Japanese government.

The declassifying in 2005 of diplomatic documents from the Korea-Japan negotiations by the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs made clearer that conscripted workers were, in part, covered in negotiations, while other victims such as women forced into sexual slavery and atomic bomb victims were not.

In 2010, the Korean government launched a program to offer 20 million won in compensation to surviving victims of forced labor or their families. In 2014, a fund was established to support forced labor victims, with the Korean government earmarking 3.3 billion won for the operation of the foundation and steelmaker Posco set to invest 10 billion won over the course of three years.

Japan often points to its Asia Women’s Fund, led by civilian efforts with indirect funding by government, which ran from 1995 to 2007.

However, while these efforts to compensate the comfort women victims are recognized, many victims were reluctant to accept the money in lieu of an official apology.

In 1991, a brave Korean woman, Kim Hak-sun, testified on the atrocities she experienced during World War II after being forced to serve as a sex slave for the Japanese military.

She inspired not only other Korean victims to step forward and share their stories, but those who had suffered similar fates in Taiwan, China, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Netherlands.

Kim filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government in December 1991, but died in 1997 without a resolution to the case.

Through the brave confessions of these women, the Japanese military’s coercion of young women and girls into sexual slavery during World War II has become widely considered a crime against humanity.

Countries including the United States and the Netherlands passed parliamentary resolutions asking the Japanese government for an official apology to the sex slave victims. In September 2001, the United Nations supported a World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa. It adopted a declaration that addressed compensation for colonialism and slavery.

Kim’s testimony had an impact on the 2001 Durban Statement, which recognizes that the slave trade during colonialism was a “crime against humanity.”

Doh added, “Japan still does not accept legal responsibility for its atrocities during colonial rule, and its victims need to see redress under international law. It’s an issue of human rights and human welfare.”


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