A dead end from the startThere cannot be “what ifs” in history. But I agree with historian Edward Hallett Carr’s idea that history is “an unending dialogue between the present and the past.” The comfort women settlement struck by the governments of Seoul and Tokyo on Dec. 28, 2015 is a good example of a poor dialogue between the present and the past. I wrote a column on the agreement that Seoul, after nearly a decade of conservative presidents, did not have half the negotiating skills it needed — and was lucky to come away with 49 percent.
In August 2011, when President Lee Myung-bak was in office, the Constitutional Court ruled that the government had failed to defend the basic constitutional rights of the victims with its inaction over compensation from Japan for the women forced into sexual slavery for imperial Japanese soldiers during the Second World War.
The top court pointed out that regardless of the dispute between Korea and Japan about the 1965 postwar settlement — including compensation for comfort women victims — the foreign ministry had not attempted to solve the matter through independent diplomatic means or third-party arbitration, and therefore had violated the constitution.
The court demanded the government revisit the war claims instead of trying to reach a political deal. After the court order, the government officially sent a letter to Tokyo. Tokyo, unsurprisingly, did not respond. Seoul resent a letter. Tokyo once again did not answer back. Seoul should have taken the second recommendation from the top court and sought international arbitration. But it did not, in fear of jeopardizing bilateral ties with Japan.
The next conservative president, Park Geun-hye, attempted a direct settlement through a summit. But under the watch of President Barack Obama, Park had to abandon that plan and let the matter become settled among foreign ministry director-generals on the sidelines of a tripartite summit in The Hague in 2015.
That was the second major misstep on the comfort women issue. The wartime claim was not brought up, and the deal was hastily closed through political bargaining. The 2015 agreement between Seoul and Tokyo that acknowledged the Japanese government’s responsibility — instead of legal accountability — stemmed from deep-seated weakness on the part of Seoul over the issue.
The government under liberal President Moon Jae-in has formed a task force to re-evaluate the Park Geun-hye administration’s 2015 agreement on the comfort women. First, the task force is built on the same rationale as the stalling of the full deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system. The decisions of the past governments came under review for an environmental study and fact-finding scrutiny in the name of so-called “procedural legitimacy.”
Second, both committees’ activities work on a preset conclusion. The reviews aren’t designed to overthrow the past decisions as ensured by the president. A retrospective procedure to build legitimacy over a done deal has no meaning beyond self-indulgence. In revisiting the 1993 Kono statement — in which the Tokyo government acknowledged coercion in mobilizing and forcing Korean women into service in military brothels — Japan also argued that the purpose was to ensure legitimacy and not to disavow the declaration.
At the time, Tokyo unilaterally bared classified diplomatic documents and claimed that the statement was the result of a political bargain. It nevertheless reached a self-contradicting conclusion that the government would continue to uphold the statement. They appeared to be pleased with themselves, but earned sneers from the international community.
Diplomacy is about upholding a cause and practical interests. What comes first is up to the leader. If neither the cause nor practicability can be earned, the action or policy becomes no more than populist maneuvering.
What is the task force on comfort women after? What cause and practical result is it seeking? We could claim the cause is to revisit a disgraceful deal. But our grounds could weaken if the international community regards the move as diplomatic disregard for an agreement between two states. Then, what practical results are we after? Even if the two governments enter into new talks, we cannot expect better results.
Moreover, we can hardly ignore Japan’s role amid the escalating threat of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. We must rely on Japanese intelligence in detecting earlier signs and identifying nuclear or missile activities, as our own Thaad radar is not fully activated.
I respect the dignity of the surviving comfort women victims. But the safety of an entire population must be considered. I sincerely hope the task force does not end up as a third flop on the comfort women issue.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 8, Page 30
*The author is the Washington bureau chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.