The Koreas

Why the ‘Comfort Women’ Deal Will Hold

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The Koreas

Why the ‘Comfort Women’ Deal Will Hold

With popular support, the Japan-South Korea comfort women agreement seems likely to succeed.

Supported by conservative organizations and a large portion of the electorate, the recently concluded Japan-South Korea comfort women agreement seems likely to succeed.

Politically speaking, South Korean society can be divided into two groups: the 50s/60s age cohort and everyone younger (20s, 30s, 40s). As the year-end Gallup Korea polling data show, the former group represents President Park Geun-hye’s base of popular support; the latter, especially the 20s age cohort, strongly disapprove of her administrative performance and would probably like to see her and the ruling Saenuri Party replaced. More recent public opinion data on the comfort women agreement confirms this divide.

Despite fierce opposition to the agreement, a Realmeter survey of 508 people on December 30 shows that a significant portion of the population actually supports the agreement. 42 percent of respondents think the government has “done well” (i.e., they support the agreement) while 50.7 percent of respondents think the government made a mistake and 6.1 percent are undecided. Notably, the strongest support comes from the oldest members of South Korean society: 71.3 percent of the 60+ age cohort give a positive evaluation (23.8 percent oppose), and 50.9 percent of the 50s age cohort agree the agreement represents a job well done (38.4 percent think otherwise).

As should be expected, given the divide in Korean society, young(er) South Koreans negatively evaluate the government’s diplomatic efforts. The 20s and 30s age cohorts strongly oppose (69 percent and 70.3 percent, respectively) the deal. Those in their 40s are slightly less negative (58.4 percent negatively appraise the agreement).

Surveys of this kind are not open-ended, so we don’t know why, exactly, people support or oppose the agreement. But media discourse and opinions from both sides suggest what people think.

Supporters can be divided into at least two categories: those who support it for diplomatic and security reasons (e.g., trilateral security) and those who simply want a resolution to this long-standing problem. Of course, the categories need not be mutually exclusive. Organizations and individuals in this category include, but are not limited to: the ruling Saenuri Party; the government (especially the Blue House and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs); conservative civic organizations (see the appeal by “Mother Corps” [ommabudae] to forgive Japan and accept the agreement); the U.S. government; U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; and older South Korean conservatives (the 50s/60s group).

Those who oppose the agreement are not small in number (indeed, they’re a majority). The problem, as many in this group see it, is that the South Korean government acted unilaterally — it didn’t consult the comfort women themselves and organizations representing them. The agreement is also seen as inadequate; notably, it does not hold the Japanese government legally responsible. Hence the opposition. Organizations and individuals in this category include: the Minjoo Party (the main opposition); progressive civic organizations; the Catholic Church in Korea; many domestic and overseas scholars; left-leaning dailies (e.g., Hankyoreh); and progressive online media.

Will this backfire for the Park Geun-hye? It’s hard to say, yet. Popular attitudes toward Japan are icy at best. But older South Koreans seem willing to support the deal — and these people represent the government’s base of support, thus giving supportive organizations a popular foundation (a critical element in a democratic society). Young people oppose the deal, but they disapproved of Park’s administration to begin with and are predisposed to oppose any major initiative by the current administration. The same goes for most progressive forces in society.

If the steeping brouhaha over the comfort woman statue situated outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul doesn’t blow the whole thing up, the deal just may hold. This would be discouraging for many, especially the comfort women who oppose the deal. Yet political leaders in South Korea and Japan, with sufficient support, appear willing to move forward.