Not just about history
The comfort women agreement between Korea and Japan can be annulled. Since it is an agreement between the foreign ministers of the two countries, it is different from a treaty legally binding by international law. But the aftermath will be problematic. When a new administration scraps an agreement made by the predecessor, it affects trust between countries. The Korea-Japan relationship is already in a quagmire of distrust.
The agreement garnered international attention when it was signed. The Obama administration openly expressed its support, and the Trump administration may hold the same stance. When a bilateral agreement is reversed, continuity of agreements made by Korea could be doubted.
There are also realistic issues. Renegotiation is only possible when the other party agrees. Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida emphasizes that the implementation of the comfort women agreement is a responsibility of Korea and Japan for the international community. But Korean presidential candidates think otherwise. Even if the deal is renegotiated, there is no guarantee for a better outcome since the Abe government remains in power in Japan. Prime Minister Abe was criticized by his conservative base for his acknowledgement of the Japanese government’s accountability, his apology and allocation of 1 billion yen from government budget. There is little possibility that Abe would renegotiate. Diplomacy is a game that works when the other party is playing.
The candidates haven’t iterated the plan after discarding or renegotiating the agreement. The presidential candidates support the installation of comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan. In protest, Japan called in the Japanese Ambassador to Korea in January and hasn’t sent him back. The foreign ministry said that it is generally not desirable to set up an installation in front of a diplomatic mission or consulate in the international community. A constructive alternative needs to be sought, such as a relocation, through consultation with local administrative agencies and civic groups. The core of the comfort women issue is the restoration of the dignity of the victims and healing the painful memories. If Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is acting president, settles the issue, the next administration would have wider range of options in Japan policy strategy. Reinforcing the alliance is insurance in the age of uncertainty. Korea-Japan relations should not be just about history. We need to discuss the future with the country that 50 million Koreans visit every year.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 1, Page 26
*The author is a Tokyo bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.