The Debate

South Korea and Japan: Resolving the Comfort Women Issue

A little more empathy is needed, on both sides.

By Naoko Kumagai for
South Korea and Japan: Resolving the Comfort Women Issue
Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File

The comfort women issue has bedeviled relations between Japan and South Korea for around thirty years. South Korea insists that Japan has not truly apologized, not even in the 2015 Agreement on Comfort Women between Japan and Republic of Korea (the 2015 Agreement). For its part, Japan views the current problem as stemming from South Korea’s lack of interest in any effort toward a reconciliation. For instance, despite contributions provided by the Japanese government in accordance with the 2015 Agreement, South Korea has not relocated the comfort woman statue placed in front of the Japanese embassy, and it unilaterally liquidated the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation that was created to support former comfort women.

This deep divide has serious security and economic implications for both countries. Worsening the divide is misunderstanding in both countries. South Korea misuses the moral high ground of the victims, while Japan fails to understand that an agreement between governments is not the end of the story and that efforts needed to continue even after the conclusion of the Agreement. A reconciliation is not something imposed by the victims; rather, it is achieved based on mutual trust built through over the long term. Particularly with regard to war compensation issues that are outside existing legal regimes, continued attention is needed to ensure that the victims’ dignity is restored, as seen for instance with the moral compensation provided to forced labor victims in East Europe under Nazi Germany control.

However, the Korean comfort women’s support group replaces the victims’ voices with dogmatic demands for state compensation and the condemnation of Japan. The support group exaggerates the victimhood and suppresses those victims and researchers who might offer a different perspective. The group has also sought to denigrate the Japanese consulate by building the comfort woman statue in front of it. Although the support group claims that the 2015 Agreement fails to heed the victims’ voices, the support group was given an explanation about the Agreement in advance, and approximately two-thirds of the then survivors of the former comfort women received cash from the Foundation, as Lee Yong-soo, a former comfort woman, publicly revealed in May 2020. Nevertheless, under the influence of the support group, the government of the ROK unilaterally liquidated the Foundation.  For Japan, that move confirmed its suspicion that South Korea is avoiding efforts at reconciliation by “moving the goalposts.” That perspective does not represent hatred towards South Korea. Indeed, a former Lee Myung-bak Administration official who was engaged in negotiations with Japan also noted the self-righteousness issue of the support group.

Meanwhile, Korean society harbors doubts about Japan’s sincerity because the Japanese government indicated that its responsibilities were fulfilled with the provision of contributions in accordance under the 2015 Agreement and because Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that he had no intention whatsoever of writing a letter to former comfort women. To be sure, this does not constitute a departure from the Agreement, in light of the victims’ sentiment that, with a reconciliation, their issues would be forgotten as past events and the fact that Korea has been requesting Japan to assume a “good faith attitude.” Even so, the prime minister could have been a little more considerate with his statement. It is, after all, through words and deeds over many years that trust is built.

One way to arrive at an understanding would be for Japan and South Korea to demonstrate some mutual empathy. Empathy is not emotional or blind sympathy toward the other person; rather, it is understanding the other person from the other person’s perspective. To paraphrase French diplomat François de Callières (1645-1717), diplomacy is thinking about how the host state sees what you do and say and what effects that has for your own country. As such, empathy is essential in diplomacy.

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In fact, the efforts of both governments to resolve the comfort women issue have at times been empathetic as well as strategic.  Japan’s leaders were shocked to hear testimony given by the former comfort women and made a political decision to establish the Asian Women’s Fund in 1995 to provide moral reparations, which the Korean government welcomed and evaluated as a “sincere measure.” Moreover, in the 2015 Agreement, in the midst of the intensifying North Korean nuclear and missile crisis, Japan accepted responsibility, and the Korean government recognized Japan’s initiatives.

Empathy must consist of understanding the other person as well as understanding oneself. Japan needs to recognize the invisible injury suffered by Korea from being dominated by Japan for 35 years. This invisible injury informs Koreas’ understanding of issues with Japan, an understanding that cannot be shaken even by the support group’s extreme positions. Moreover, the voices of a very small group in Japan that oppose any response by Japan undo the progress made by the sincere apologies that the Japanese government has offered and the trust that is essential to any efforts by Tokyo to convey accurate historical facts.

On the other hand, Korea should look squarely at the trajectory of postwar Japan as a peaceful state and know that many Japanese, from former soldiers to younger people, perceive the apology, the hope for bringing healing to the victims, and the pledge for peace as conveyed along with their donations to the Asian Women’s Fund as representing the position of broader Japanese society on the former comfort women. Moreover, it should be aware that the extreme activities of the support group may harm the victims and even be detrimental to freedom of speech.

Should future generations of Japan and South Korea be made victims of the current mutual distrust, which is built on a lack of empathy, and a desire to cross swords, it would dash the hope expressed by former comfort women that Koreans and Japanese would get along.

Empathy for each other will require an investment of time and effort by the leaders of both countries. In the meantime, both countries should avoid allowing their standoff over historical differences to serve the interests of North Korea and China. Rather, Japan and South Korea should continue to look for practical ways in which they can work together.

Naoko Kumagai is a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University.