This is a re-post of an essay I wrote a few weeks ago for the Lowy Institute. I am also happy to say that I was translated into Japanese, here.
So everyone knows that South Korea and Japan are having another spat – this time over compensation of Korean forced labor during the Imperial period. Korean courts have opened the door for lawsuits, while Japan continues to insist that all such claims were resolved at the time of normalization treaty. Korean officials I’ve talked with tell me that there is nothing the government can do. This is coming from the courts. I find that highly unlikely given the extreme presidentialization of the South Korean constitutional order and regular POTROK flouting of checks-and-balances.
But my concern here is that the South Korean push on Japan on yet another issue will not lead to pushback. Trump doesn’t care about this stuff. He’s racist, dislikes allies, and gets most animated when telling them to pay more. SK conservatives, who have traditionally slowed the march to a precipice with Japan, are out of power. And Abe is burned out on this issue (‘Korea fatigue’).
So if the South Korean left genuinely wants a breach with Japan, and a slide into a cold war over Dokdo/Takeshima, Sea of Japan/East Sea, comfort women, labor reparations, and so on, then they’ll get it this time. This is very worrisome, but also a ‘useful’ social science natural experiment moment: we will learn just how far the South Korean left is willing to go on Japan, because the traditional brakes are not there this time.
The full essay follows the jump…
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.
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