This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute.
Japan and South Korea clinched a deal in late December over the comfort women. It is pretty controversial in Korea, and the Japanese are now insisting that the deal means the issue should never be brought up again ever. Given how deeply Koreans care about this – I can’t begin to list the huge number of student papers, conference papers, journal and newspaper articles, TV programs, emails, and what all I have read/seen over the years on this – I am very skeptical that an intergovernmental deal will suddenly close down an issue that attracts so much civil society and journalistic attention, not to mention helps shape South Korea’s anti-Japanist political identity.
Luckily for President Park Geun-Hye, the North Korean tests and bad weather of the last month distracted attention and made street protests difficult. In the coming year, I think the big tests of the deal’s ‘stickiness’ are the April parliamentary elections, and the moving the statue (pic above) from in front of the Japanese embassy. If the left doesn’t use this as a wedge issue, and if students and activists don’t human-shield the statue or attack the crane, then perhaps Koreans really are ready to move on. But I am very skeptical that an issue which has been built-up in K national consciousness for 25 years can suddenly be switched off by secretive, high-level deal among a bunch of bureaucrats. I don’t buy it…
The full Lowy essay on my skepticism follows the jump
Until the North Korean nuclear test grabbed everyone’s attention, the most important recent news to come out of Korea was the late 2015 deal between South Korea and Japan regarding the comfort women. Indeed, in so far as North Korea’s nuclear test is more of the same (it was not a thermonuclear device), the comfort women deal is arguably more important. The deal is hugely controversial and, I increasingly believe, unlikely to hold.
Lowy’s previous treatment of this has focused on the agreement’s fairness (or lack of), and there seems to be an emerging consensus that the comfort women got a poor deal (here, here, here). The comfort women themselves appear strongly opposed. The largest comfort women group, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan, strongly opposes it and has started a fund drive to replace the monies Japan has agreed to provide. Rather than debate the deal’s merits yet again, I want to look at the political questions surrounding it:
Why this Deal Now?
The external pressure on both sides was enormous and worsening.
The initial response, especially in Korea, was surprise. The deal seemed to fall out of the sky. The Park Geun-Hye administration gave little indication that a deal was coming, and initial reporting on it here called it ‘hasty’ and ‘thrown-together.’ President Park painted herself into a corner by insisting that the comfort women issue be dealt with in 2015, the 50th anniversary of Japan-Korea normalization. It increasingly looks like Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo played for time and got the better of negotiations. That likely explains the very late 2015 timing.
But there were huge structural pressures in the background: extraordinary and growing American pressure on the Tokyo and Seoul to finally put this issue to rest. Every western analyst, journalist, academic, government, or military figure I know with some involvement in this issue thought a resolution was critical. There has been constant track 1, 1.5, and 2 pressure on both parties to resolve it. There has been a torrent of articles, think-tank reports, policy briefs, books, and so on regarding this issue. Even President Obama got involved too. Everyone could see that the real winners of Japan-Korea estrangement are North Korea and China. As China continues its ascent and North Korea’s nuclear program expands, the unrelenting drumbeat of westerners at every level saying, ‘fix this,’ must have been exhausting.
Will South Koreans Accept this Deal?
It will be far more contentious in Korea than Japan.
As the links above suggest, there is a growing consensus that Japan got a lot out of the deal. In fact, I am rather surprised the Koreans accepted it, and the backlash here has already begun. Comfort women groups have hit the streets; the nationalist NGOs are opposed it; the weekly rallies at the comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul have continued unabated; Korean intellectuals have taken to social media to push back.
The reaction of civil society groups and the media commentariat in the coming months, especially in the run up to parliamentary elections in April, will be crucial. The leftist groups and papers will come out against it, of course. Whether the Park government can move larger public opinion, to get the deal to ‘stick,’ is questionable at best. Park herself may have to give a major address in which she openly pleas for Koreans to accept that this was the best they could get. I am skeptical Koreans will accept that, especially from Park given her father’s past. Park Chung-Hee worked for the Japanese colonial administration in Korea, and later ruled as a dictator, accepting normalization terms from Japan which many Koreans considered a raw deal back then as well. The criticism that the current Park is ‘pro-Japanese’ and not willing to take a tougher stand can already be heard. If only Nixon could go to China, it may take a leftist nationalist president in South Korea to finally reconcile the left to a deal with Japan on this issue. I do not believe Park, or the secretive manner in which she handled the negotiations, can do it.
But more important than Park’s mixed effort are the larger background issues of Korea’s interpretation of Japan. As I have argued at the Interpreter before (here, here; much longer version here), the comfort women and the historical issues with Japan are central narratives in the construction of modern South Korean political identity. As a divided nation, South Korea must constantly demonstrate its ‘stateness’ and legitimacy against its mendacious and highly nationalistic Northern competitor. To win the inter-Korean legitimacy contest, South Korea defines itself against Japan and its imperial history here. For example, South Koreans get far more incensed by Japan’s behavior 75 years ago than North Korea’s far worse human rights behavior since then, and comparisons of the comfort women tragedy to the far-worse Holocaust are commonplace here. With so many groups vested in these issues, and so much of Korea’s ‘ontological security’ wrapped up in demanding recognition and contrition from Japan, are Koreans ready to move on? I am hugely skeptical, because Park has made no effort to lay this groundwork.
Will the South Korean Left Politicize the Deal?
The fragmenting, flailing left will be sorely tempted to use this as a wedge issue.
The deal tries to lay this issue to rest by insisting that it may not be re-visited in the future. Elites all around – Seoul, Tokyo, Washington – want this, but there will be a substantial bloc of rejectionists in South Korea. Hence reviving and politicizing this issue will be a tremendous temptation for the South Korean left, particularly given its disarray and inability to find an issue that will work against Park Geun-Hye. The left has been (surprisingly) unable to reap political gains from the many scandals of Park’s tenure: staffing controversies, the sinking of the Sewol ferry, the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Worse, the left, always more fragmented than the right anyway, is breaking into two rival blocks, with polling suggesting the right may take 60% of the April parliamentary vote.
In such dire circumstances, it is easy to see the left reaching for the highly resonant comfort women issue in a bid to prevent catastrophe. Hotly disputing the comfort women deal – painting it as a deal of the pro-Japanese right, and not the Korean people – would be an obvious, evocative wedge issue. As long Korean opposition to the deal can be relegated to the leftist newspapers and nationalist NGOs, Park might be able to swing public opinion. But if this takes over the National Assembly campaign in the spring, I think the deal will collapse.
If all this was not enough, the deal also intimates that the South Korean government will eventually move the statue from in front of the Japanese embassy. Tokyo claims, with some reason, that it violates the Vienna Convention on diplomacy prohibiting undue harassment of embassies. Moving it will be another huge controversy. This deal is the not the final statement Tokyo wants it to be.