The Comfort Women Agreement
Interrupting our long-planned break, Japan and Korea reached a landmark agreement yesterday on an issue that had ground bilateral relations between the two countries to a virtual halt since 2013: the comfort women. The agreement took the form of two parallel statements by Foreign Ministers Kishida and Yun (reproduced from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in full below). Yuki Tatsumi provides excellent analysis at the Diplomat.
The tightly drafted statements—each consisting of three paragraphs—follow a logic that is worth parsing paragraph by paragraph. The Japanese statement begins with an apology that tries—yet again—to resolve ongoing ambiguities in Japanese policy and discourse on the issue. The 1993 Kono Statement acknowledged that the comfort women had existed and took the important but partial step of noting “direct and indirect” military involvement. But the Kono statement also hedged by noting that “the recruitment of the comfort women was conducted mainly by private recruiters,” an issue which has exploded in South Korea due to the controversial work of Park Yu-ha suggesting the pivotal role of South Korean brokers. On the right, the Kono statement was dismissed as reflecting the prime minister’s personal views; Shinzo Abe himself has a history of comfort women denial (Alex Dudden and Kozo Mizoguchi dissect his earlier views at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus). In the new statement, Abe now apologizes explicitly “as the Prime Minister of Japan,” a Nixon-in-China move that will hopefully defuse the ongoing issue of Japanese sincerity.
The second paragraph of the Japanese statement hits on a complex financial formula that simultaneously involves direct Japanese payments, but through a South Korean foundation as intermediary. An ongoing issue for Japan has been its firm stance—largely for reasons of legal liability—that the 1965 normalization and related claims agreements between the two countries resolved all outstanding war-time claims; in a recent post, we detailed the way Korean and Chinese courts are seeking to chip away at this firewall on forced labor cases. The government has been highly reluctant to directly compensate not only the comfort women, but to entertain any legal actions stemming from its absorption of Korea and the destruction of the war. In the 1990s, the Murayama government tried to square this circle by contributing to a private Asia Women’s Fund drawing partly on private sector funds, but the effort was seen by Korea as a means of sidestepping culpability. The creation of a South Korean fund and direct government payments was one of the more important innovations of the agreement.
Closely related, however, and making up the third paragraph of the Japanese statement, is the assurance that the issue is now laid to rest “finally and irreversibly.” The governments will even “refrain from accusing or criticizing each other regarding this issue in the international community, including at the United Nations.” (The last clause refers to ongoing efforts in the NGO community to bring the issue before UN human rights bodies but also to the effort on the part of Japan—highly unlikely to succeed—of gaining a permanent UN Security Council seat).
Believe it or not, this may actually be the most difficult part of the agreement to guarantee. An ongoing problem for Japan has been the lack of government discipline on the issue; the LDP had tolerated statements by its own party members—and even cabinet members—that reflect ongoing comfort women denial. Indeed, no sooner had the agreement been reached than the prime minister’s wife visited Yasakuni, putting pictures up on her Facebook page.
At the Kim Dae-jung-Keizo Obuchi summit in 1998 (Joint Statement here), Kim Dae Jung promised unilaterally that Korea would not revisit the history issues if Japan apologized. But he could not of course make this commitment for his successors, Korean politicians and NGOs and the public more broadly, all of whom have kept the issue alive. Commentary on the agreement has focused on the importance of “implementation,” but that is not the issue; the issue is whether elites and mass publics can let the issues go or not. A crucial test: the agreement promises—somewhat vaguely—to address the issue of the statute in honor of the comfort women that was built right across the street from the Japanese embassy, staring in stark accusation. Figuring out what to do with that statue will be a bigger task than the two governments probably realize. The agreement raises hope that bilateral relations between these two critical allies will improve, permitting tighter trilateral cooperation as well. Sadly, I am not convinced the issue has been put to rest.
- Foreign Minister Kishida
The Government of Japan and the Government of the Republic of Korea (ROK) have intensively discussed the issue of comfort women between Japan and the ROK at bilateral meetings including the Director-General consultations. Based on the result of such discussions, I, on behalf of the Government of Japan, state the following:
(1) The issue of comfort women, with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time, was a grave affront to the honor and dignity of large numbers of women, and the Government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective. As Prime Minister of Japan, Prime Minister Abe expresses anew his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women.
(2) The Government of Japan has been sincerely dealing with this issue. Building on such experience, the Government of Japan will now take measures to heal psychological wounds of all former comfort women through its budget. To be more specific, it has been decided that the Government of the ROK establish a foundation for the purpose of providing support for the former comfort women, that its funds be contributed by the Government of Japan as a one-time contribution through its budget, and that projects for recovering the honor and dignity and healing the psychological wounds of all former comfort women be carried out under the cooperation between the Government of Japan and the Government of the ROK.
(3) While stating the above, the Government of Japan confirms that this issue is resolved finally and irreversibly with this announcement, on the premise that the Government will steadily implement the measures specified in (2) above. In addition, together with the Government of the ROK, the Government of Japan will refrain from accusing or criticizing each other regarding this issue in the international community, including at the United Nations.
- Foreign Minister Yun
The Government of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Government of Japan have intensively discussed the issue of comfort women between the ROK and Japan at bilateral meetings including the Director-General consultations. Based on the result of such discussions, I, on behalf of the Government of the ROK, state the following:
(1) The Government of the ROK values the GOJ’s announcement and efforts made by the Government of Japan in the lead-up to the issuance of the announcement and confirms, together with the GOJ, that the issue is resolved finally and irreversibly with this announcement, on the premise that the Government of Japan will steadily implement the measures specified in 1. (2) above. The Government of the ROK will cooperate in the implementation of the Government of Japan’s measures.
(2) The Government of the ROK acknowledges the fact that the Government of Japan is concerned about the statue built in front of the Embassy of Japan in Seoul from the viewpoint of preventing any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity, and will 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.
(3) The Government of the ROK, together with the Government of Japan, will refrain from accusing or criticizing each other regarding this issue in the international community, including at the United Nations, on the premise that the Government of Japan will steadily implement the measures it announced.