With the South Korean elections now concluded, it is time for the South Korean government to move forward on the tricky, unpopular matter on the agenda: its relationship with Japan. While the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea alliances are thriving, U.S. security strategy in the region relies on effective coordination between all three countries, which continues to be hampered by tensions between Japan and South Korea. Though these two countries share so many traits and there is so much at stake, relations continue to be embroiled in the past. It is time for Japan and South Korea to begin thinking creatively about resolving these issues, starting with the stalled comfort women agreement.
The “comfort women” issue, referring to women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War Two, has been the focal point of tensions between Japan and South Korea since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye came to power. Park entered office in 2013 calling for South Korean comfort women to be offered reparations by the Japanese government. Soon after, Abe announced that he would re-examine the Kono Statement – signed by former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in 1993 – which had officially recognized Japan’s wartime actions toward the comfort women. Though Abe ultimately upheld the statement, the damage was done, and relations between the two countries continued to be strained.
The Japan-South Korea comfort women agreement on December 28, 2015 took many by surprise. The United States commended the agreement, and many outside observers recognized it as a real compromise on both sides, laudably concluded in an effective, diplomatic manner. In the agreement, Abe agreed to provide an apology and contribute $8.3 million to a fund for existing comfort women. South Korea agreed to recognize the issue as resolved and address the question of the comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
The success of the agreement now hinges on this statue. The statue, depicting a barefoot girl and an empty chair, was placed in front of the embassy in December 2011 to commemorate the unresolved issue. Japan wants the statue removed, arguing that it defies the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Protocol; this is clear from the language of the agreement, which directly references “disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity,” as stated in Article 22.
The challenge is that preservation of peace and dignity must be balanced with the freedom of expression. The United States is no stranger to placing provocative political statues or names in front of a foreign embassy. In 1984, the United States renamed the street outside of the Soviet Embassy “Andrei Sakharov Plaza,” after a prominent Soviet dissident. Today, Congress is undertaking a similar effort to rename the street outside the Chinese Embassy “Liu Xiaobo Plaza.” But China has protested these efforts, and President Barack Obama is likely to veto the bill. It is not surprising that Japan would advocate for the relocation of the statue in front of its embassy.
South Korea, recognizing this, agreed to “strive to solve the issue.” Unfortunately, the government cannot move the statue without successful agreement with the civil society groups that originally put it in front of the Japanese embassy. Those advocacy groups are largely against the recent agreement, due to the lack of consultation with the surviving comfort women. With two-thirds of the public opposed to relocation of the statue, moving it does not seem possible in the near term. Yet the language of the agreement is clear: the government of South Korea acknowledges the government of Japan’s concerns about the statue and will address the issue appropriately through consultations with related organizations.
The language of the agreement is such that the statue’s removal is not a condition for the agreement to be carried out, and so some commentators have called on Japan to move forward regardless. Perhaps in time, the statue can be relocated once public opposition settles. Then again, public opinion in South Korea may not change so quickly. For now, the agreement is at a standstill.
The situation calls for creative resolution. One such example could be to move the Japanese embassy itself. This seems outlandish – building an embassy is a costly endeavor – but embassies regularly move for political and practical reasons. For example, the debate about moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem reprises with each presidential election season. Currently, the United States is in the process of moving its embassies in the Vatican, Iceland, and United Kingdom for practical reasons such as size, traffic, and safety. Notably, at least in the case of the United Kingdom, the cost of the new embassy will be covered by the sale of the previous embassy.
There are clear drawbacks to moving the Japanese embassy: Japan and South Korea would have to come to an agreement on an appropriate division of labor and cost. Real estate in Seoul is expensive, and the South Korean government would need to facilitate the sale of the current embassy and purchase of a new one. Both countries may struggle to frame it domestically as a diplomatic feat, not as a concession. Moreover, advocacy groups would likely seek to place a new statue – or relocate the existing statue – in front of the new Japanese embassy. The South Korean government would need to halt any such efforts, or the current situation will reprise. Perhaps the current Japanese embassy location could be made into something that still grants significance to the statue’s continued location, even something as simple as a garden.
While unconventional, simply discussing alternative solutions is a step to break out of the current deadlock. Though South Korea is serious about the bilateral agreement, it may truly be unable to muster the political support needed to move the comfort women statue. In this climate, moving the Japanese embassy is an option that could be considered. At the very least, Japan would be encouraged and reassured that South Korea is making every effort to move the agreement forward. It could go a long way toward building trust between the two countries.
On April 1, both leaders reiterated their sincerity in moving the deal forward. The South Korean government does not want the agreement to fail – rather, it expended considerable political capital in establishing the agreement. Nor does the Japanese government wish to deny the South Korean people the opportunity to mourn the abuses suffered by the comfort women – but the statue’s presence in front of the embassy inhibits forward-looking relationship-building between the two countries’ peoples. The current stall in the agreement threatens to undermine all the progress and hope that the agreement stands for. For the sake of peace and security in Northeast Asia, Japan and South Korea should consider every option in their effort to carry out the agreement. The United States, for its part, should encourage both parties to think creatively.
Hana Rudolph is a research assistant with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.