The following is an op-ed I published in last week’s Newsweek Japan, where I write once a month. My editor asked me to write about how the comfort women deal of last year is getting on, and I have to say that I am surprised just how little we even hear about it anymore. For an issue that the Korean media often treated as central to South Korean identity, it seems to have inexplicably dropped out of the newspapers (which, I strongly suspect, displays how much the Korean government ‘directs’ the media here.)
So the main argument I make advances the one I made a few months ago: that if the Korean left does not fight back against the deal, then the deal achieves a level of national consensus it did not have initially when it was clinched in secret by a conservative government. And now that the left has surprisingly taken the majority in the parliament, this is the first and most important acid test for the deal. If the left doesn’t use its newfound power to go after the deal, then they are tacitly approving it.
Of course, no one in Korea will proactively say that they support the deal, but not acting is a way acting too. If the left, which has done so much to create this issue, does not re-politicize it, then that basically mean a broad, however unspoken, left-right consensus has emerged to take the deal and let the issue slowly disappear. The activist groups and leftist intellectuals, many of whom seem to have built their careers around the comfort women, will never give up. But without political representation, they are just one more voice in South Korea’s cacophonous civil society.
I have to say that I am really surprised that events are running this way. Just about every Korean I know gets really indignant and emotional at the mention of this issue. Yet the political class has dropped like a hot potato. So all these years of sturm und drang are over, just like that? Really? Still not sure why this has happened – American pressure? it was all just an act? everyone is truly terrified of NK and wants Japanese solidarity?
The full essay follows the jump.
In December 2015, the administrations of Korean President Park Geun-Hye and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo surprised almost everyone by “finally and irreversibly” settling the comfort women issue that had long-plagued Japan-Korea relations. Tokyo is to pay ¥1 billion to several Korean women coerced or lured into sexual slavery during the Japanese colonial period (long maintained by Korea as coordinated and sanctioned by official channels), and in return the South Korean government is to drop the issue and not pursue future claims. Though many interpreted the deal as a new beginning, virtually no part of it has moved forward. Park has seemingly stalled, and Abe has not pressed. A new left-wing majority entered the Korean legislature this past spring, leaving many to questioning whether the deal will survive, given the left’s history of comfort women advocacy. So far, though, it remains.
North Korea – the Real Reason for the Deal
North Korea is a central reason. Its aggressive behavior this year drowned out any controversy over the deal and illustrates the geopolitical pressures behind the deal. The two Koreas are experiencing levels of hostility not seen since a North Korean submarine sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan in early 2010. In the months since the comfort women deal was signed, Pyongyang has conducted its fourth nuclear test, launched several missiles, shuttered the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and organized a much-hyped Workers’ Party Congress, the first in 36 years. Both Japan and Korea have shown newfound pragmatism regarding their shared security threat, and have seemingly put ancillary issues, such as the comfort women deal, on the backburner.
This apparent reprioritization can been seen in the behavior of the Park Administration, which has mothballed two committees explicitly designed to explore the comfort women issue in depth. Established in 2013 and 2015 respectively, each task force was to produce a white paper that was to guide policy discussion regarding the comfort women. Their reports, due last December, were unexpectedly shelved. Both committees remain in hiatus.
Still Not Popular Though
Nevertheless, key provisions of the deal have yet to materialize, perhaps in response to the deal’s unpopularity in Korea. No mechanism has yet been set up for the Japanese government to deposit the promised ¥1 billion to the surviving comfort women themselves. A statue of a comfort woman in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, possibly a harassment violation of the Vienna Convention on diplomacy, was also to be moved as part of the deal (and in fact, Tokyo may choose not to deposit any money if that statute remains).
The victory of the left in this spring’s parliamentary elections opens the possibility that the issue will be revisited. The left historically oscillates from skepticism to unabashed hostility towards Japan, with some going as far to argue that Tokyo, not Pyongyang, is South Korea’s greatest enemy. The comfort women issue has long been a rallying cry for both real and imagined hardships endured by Koreans during the Japanese colonization period of 1910 to 1945.
The main opposition Minjoo Party, along with the left-of-center Kookmin Party, could certainly push through legislation amending, obstructing, or even dismantling the deal itself. It remains, after all, unpopular among the Korean electorate. President Park’s approval ratings are low, and a looming presidential election next year suggests the time is ripe for political opportunism.
Silence Indicates Approval?
The National Assembly has yet to do much of anything since the April 13th elections. Members have been squabbling over speaker and committee positions, missing their June 7th deadline. This fails to explain however why members of the left have not utilized unofficial channels to voice their discontent.
Silence on the issue can be telling. No elected opposition members have spoken out since the election. The most influential person, other than President Park, to comment on the comfort women deal is the Minjoo Party’s interim chairman Kim Chong In. He has in fact come out in favor of it, expressing a desire to close the book on a decades-long issue that has handicapped relations between the two countries.
The comfort women deal remains in flux. Park no longer enjoys a majority in the legislature and will struggle to pass anything. That calls into question whether or not she can establish the necessary mechanisms for Tokyo to deposit the promised funds, move the statue, or even fend off possible amendments or impediments to the deal itself. However, the left’s silence on the issue signals a tacit acceptance that moving on is perhaps the best decision for both countries. If the left does not move on the issue by the end of the year, that will imply a national consensus, however grudging, to respect the deal.