At the bilateral meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Monday, the two leaders agreed to “accelerate talks to reach an agreement as soon as possible” on the issue of comfort women. “Comfort women” is a euphemism for women, mostly from the Korean Peninsula, sent to frontline brothels as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers.
Park indicated her preferred timeline for the ongoing negotiations –hopefully to be settled by the end of the year – in a written response to questions from The Mainichi Shimbun and Asahi Shimbun. She said, “I truly wish for the comfort women issue to be resolved within this year through the Japan-Korea leaders’ summit and to heal the wounds of the victims.” Time is running out for these elderly women, as South Korean support groups say that only 56 former comfort women remain.
This is not the first time Japan and South Korea have agreed to try and put the issue behind them once and for all. From Japan’s perspective, the dispute should already have been resolved – in 1965, when the South Korean government agreed that all issues of compensation would be settled government-to-government, and again in 1994, when the Asian Women’s Fund was set up with government assistance to solicit funds for former comfort women on humanitarian grounds.
However, the issue continues to fester because activists believe these previous agreements are inadequate: they want the Japanese government to apologize “sincerely,” directly provide compensation to victims, and recognize the wartime government’s legal responsibility for the suffering that the women were subjected to. Many former comfort women either chose to not accept the money from the Asian Women’s Fund, or were pressured to return the money they had already accepted. In addition to such citizen activism, another important factor that propelled the issue back into the international spotlight was the August 2011 ruling by the Constitutional Court of Korea that the South Korean government’s failure to seek a resolution was unconstitutional.
Facing such pressure in South Korea, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Korean President Lee Myung Bak came extremely close to resolving the dispute in late 2012. The framework for resolution, the Sasae proposal, consisted of three points: the prime minister would apologize to the victims, the Japanese ambassador to South Korea would convey these apologies to the victims on behalf of the prime minister, and the Japanese government would fund humanitarian assistance programs.
After initially rejecting the proposal in March 2012, Seoul asked Tokyo to resume negotiations over it in October. The two sides were already in the process of negotiating the final wording for the letter of apology from the Japanese prime minister to the victims when Noda’s plunging popularity forced him to call a snap election in the Lower House. The Lower House elections effectively extinguished all talk of a grand resolution. Tsuyoshi Saito, then deputy chief Cabinet secretary, recalls in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, “We could have reached an agreement if we had had a little more time.” If the election had not extinguished the momentum toward resolution, Noda and Lee were supposed to reach a final agreement on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) conference in November 2012, according to Lee’s memoirs.
The ill-timed elections brought the conservative Abe back to power after his original stint with the premiership in the mid-2000s. Abe was widely seen in the region as having revisionist views of history (and his clumsy attempt to investigate the process by which the 1993 Kono Statement was issued did nothing to defuse such concerns). Because of this, Park refused to meet with him – leading to a three-and-a-half year freeze in summit diplomacy.
But despite the lack of movement at the top level, there is cause for optimism, as talks have been going on between the foreign ministries’ director-generals since April 2014. Nine working-level talks have already been held, and negotiations over specifics are expected to continue at this level.
What are the prospects for putting the issue to rest this time around?
In Japan, the most important difference between 1994 (when the Asian Women’s Fund was established) and 2015 are Abe’s conservative credentials, especially in contrast to socialist Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s lack of them. As problematic as Abe’s revisionism has been, it is this very conservatism that allows him to act as a credible negotiator on behalf of the Japanese right – the extremists most likely to derail the implementation of any hypothetical agreement.
Just as only Abe could have gone as far as he did in upholding previous apologies in his August 15 statement, Abe may be Japan’s best bet to rein in the right and reach an agreement with South Korea. Abe can make a conciliatory gesture without provoking the kind of a backlash that the same gesture from a more liberal prime minister might provoke. Furthermore, Abe is serious about it this time. In his comments, he said he wanted to “settle the issue as soon as possible,” which, as the Nikkei points out, is a shift from the Japanese government’s longstanding position that the issue had already been settled. Abe also said he did not want to “leave the comfort women issue as an obstacle for future generations as the two countries build a future-oriented cooperative relationship.”
But as Abe does not intend to recognize legal responsibility or accept demands for additional compensation – which he believes were legally “settled completely and finally” in 1965 – what can he do that will satisfy South Korean demands? It will take great diplomacy and political savvy for Park to negotiate an agreement that Abe can agree to and the South Korean people will accept.
The “comfort women” issue dominated Abe and Park’s almost two-hour long conversation. Other topics that Abe and Park discussed include the former chief of Sankei Shimbun’s Seoul bureau, who is currently facing prison time in Seoul for allegedly defaming Park; South Korea’s ban on Japanese marine product imports; and China’s advances in the South China Sea. The last Japan-Korea bilateral summit meeting was between Noda and Lee in Beijing in May 2012.