On Monday, Japan and South Korea announced a landmark agreement on the issue of “comfort women,” women coerced into sexual slavery for the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. The agreement saw Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologize for the women’s suffering and the government of Japan agree to provide compensation to a fund to be established by the Korean government. In doing so, the deal potentially lays to rest one of the most contentious issues in Japan-South Korea relations – but not everyone is on board.
Most notably, many of the “comfort women” themselves were outspoken in their denunciation of the deal. One of the women, Lee Yong-soo, told reporters that “the agreement does not reflect the views of former comfort women.” She promised to “ignore it completely.”
“We are not craving for money,” she said, dismissing the $8.3 million fund negotiated between Japan and South Korea. “What we demand is that Japan make official reparations for the crime it had committed.” For Lee and other critics, Abe’s apology does not go far enough in officially acknowledging Japan’s legal responsibility for the women’s suffering.
The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery in Japan was even more outspoken, calling the deal the result of “humiliating diplomacy” that saw Seoul give up too much for too little. “The agreement is nothing but a diplomatic collusion that thoroughly betrayed the wishes of comfort women and the South Korean people,” the group said in a statement.
Amnesty International joined in with a statement noting that “the women were missing from the negotiation table.” Hiroka Shoji, East Asia Researcher at Amnesty International, said that the women “must not be sold short in a deal that is more about political expediency than justice.”
South Korea has committed to considering the comfort women issue closed, assuming the deal is implemented as planned. In his statement, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se confirmed that, for the Korean government, “the issue is resolved finally and irreversibly with this announcement.” But getting buy-in from Korean society will be a different story, as the reaction from the victims themselves proved. Already, the narrative that Seoul sold out the comfort women for political expediency is damaging perceptions of the deal.
Now, the South Korean government is trying to win approval from the comfort women themselves, but it faces an uphill battle. Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung-nam visited a group of the victims on Tuesday, as Yonhap News reports. The women complained that they had not been consulted before or during South Korea’s negotiations with Japan. “Which country do you belong to?” Lee asked Lim. “Shouldn’t you tell us that you’re having such negotiations with Japan?”
Lim tried to reassure the women that Seoul’s top priority was to see the women treated with dignity before the remaining 46 victims pass away. He said the South Korean government could not include the women in the negotiations but that it wants their understanding of the deal.
At another meeting, survivor Kim Kun-ja flatly told Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul, “We won’t accept it.” “We’re the victims. Why should the government rashly reach a deal?” she said.
Seoul is also coming under fire for a section of the agreement that acknowledges Japan’s concerns about a statue symbolizing the comfort women that was built in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. South Korea promised to “strive to solve this issue in an appropriate manner through taking measures such as consulting with related organizations about possible ways of addressing this issue.” That language is being read by critics as an implicit promise to remove the statue, creating another flashpoint for groups who believe the agreement didn’t go far enough to protect the victims.
“The statue is a symbol of history and a public asset that embodies spirit of the Wednesday demonstrations that called for a resolution to the sex slavery issue,” said the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan. “It is not appropriate for the Korean government to meddle in matters concerning the statue.”
After the optimism of Monday, with both South Korea and Japan (as well as the United States) praising the deal as a much-needed breakthrough in relations, the backlash brings expectations back down to earth. Unless South Korea society – and particularly the comfort women – agree with Seoul that “the issue is resolved finally and irreversibly,” it will not go away. And that means Japan-South Korea relations might not be moving on after all.