Monday, January 04, 2016

Korea-Japan Agreement on Comfort Women

If an apology is not followed by contrition and self-reflection, but instead by gloating--“we apologized, so that ought to shut'em up”--does that apology mean anything? That is the core question that the Korean public is facing with respect to the recent agreement regarding Comfort Women between Korea and Japan.

On December 29, 2015, South Korea and Japan reached an agreement under which the Comfort Women issue was considered "finally and irreversibly" resolved. Under the agreement, the Japanese government issued a statement that read:
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.

In addition to this statement, the Japanese government pledged to contribute one billion yen (~USD 8.3 million), out of the Japanese government's budget, to a foundation established by the Korean government, whose funding will go toward assisting the surviving Comfort Women.

This agreement sounds fairly good on its face. But the Korean public is generally unhappy with it, with many good reasons. First among the reasons is that the actual victims, namely the surviving Comfort Women, were completely shut out from the negotiation of the agreement. The 46 surviving Comfort Women were not even aware that the Korean government is negotiating for this agreement; they did not learn of this agreement until the media reported it. In a cruel irony, the surviving Comfort Women were initially confused by a sudden flood of congratulatory messages from international organizations, which mistakenly believed that the surviving Comfort Women managed to reach an accord with the Japanese government.

Ultimately, the surviving Comfort Women are unhappy with the agreement for the same reason as the Korean public's: the obvious phoniness of the apology. Normally, an apology is a recognition of past wrongdoing, followed by a period of contrition and self-reflection. In this instance, however, neither the Japanese government nor Prime Minister Shinzo Abe showed any self-reflection about how Imperial Japan brutally kidnapped, raped and murdered hundreds of thousands of women under the vile euphemism of "Comfort Women." Instead, Abe followed up the agreement with triumphant gloating, as he stated: "there will be no future reference at all to this issue [the Comfort Women issue]. We will not raise it in the next Japan-Korea summit meeting. This is the end. There will be no more apology."

(Compare Abe's statement to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's statement in 2013: "Naturally, [Germany has] an everlasting responsibility for the crimes of national-socialism, for the victims of World War II, and above all, for the Holocaust.")

Only an idiot would believe that Shinzo Abe, son of a suspected Class A war criminal in the post-WWII Tokyo Tribunal, would feel sorry about Comfort Women. Yet the length that his administration traveled to display the hollowness of this apology is nonetheless impressive in a twisted way. Even as it was issuing an apology, the Japanese government demanded that Korea remove a Comfort Women memorial statue in front if the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Although this demand was not formalized into an agreement, Japanese officials are already telling the media that the Japanese government would not pay the fund in the agreement unless the memorial statue was removed.

Comfort Women memorial statue, in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

Speaking of the payment: the Japanese government strenuously denies that the money is a legal reparation for the damages that the Comfort Women suffered. This is consistent with Japan's position on Comfort Women thus far: that it did not violate any law in conscripting Korean women into forced sex slavery. Because Japan does not think it committed any crime, there is no damage to recompense as far as it is concerned. 

(If you were curious: the surviving Comfort Women receive a pension from the Korean government, and they do not need the money. One of the points that the Comfort Women have consistently made is that any money paid by Japan should be an expression of its legal responsibility.)

So this is what we have: a statement of apology, followed by gloating. An acceptance of responsibility, followed by denial of legal responsibility. A pledge to pay money as an apologia, followed by the demand to erase the crime from the public memory. 

This is another rendition of Japan's playbook with respect to its war crimes. In its heart of hearts, Japan steadfastly believes that it did nothing wrong leading up to and during World War II. Was Imperial Japan wrong to colonize Korea and China? No--Japan was only trying to protect Asia from European powers. Was Imperial Japan wrong to bomb Pearl Harbor? No--the United States forced Japan's hand by setting up a trade embargo. Was Imperial Japan wrong to kidnap hundred of thousands of women--many of whom were no more than 13, 14 years old--and force them into sexual slavery, to be raped by dozens of soldiers every day? No--war is bad for everyone, and at any rate, Comfort Women are lying whores who volunteered to join the war effort. 

This sick and disgusting worldview is so deeply rooted into the Japanese consciousness that any Japanese statement to the contrary is no more than a cynical bargaining chip, tossed in order to lower the heat of international outrage directed at the worldview's heinousness. Because Japan (and in particular, Japan's conservatives led by the current prime minister) cannot bring itself to mean what it says, Japan must always follow up its statements with a series of attempts to run away from them as quickly as possible.

Question, then, is: what should Korea and Koreans do about this?

(More after the jump)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Most Koreans are dissatisfied, many angry, with the agreement. TK is also outraged. In addition to everything in the foregoing, TK finds Korean president Park Geun-hye's incompetence in negotiating this agreement particularly aggravating. At the negotiating table, Korea was at an unusually strong position. Japan's crimes were heinous, and their then-position was appalling. The surviving Comfort Women were very old and passing away, which added to the urgency of resolution. Most importantly, the United States--the most important ally for both Japan and Korea--was pushing for a resolution. Park administration pissed away these advantages. It could have extracted so many more concessions from Japan (for example, personal visits of the prime minister to the surviving Comfort Women to hand-deliver letters of apology,) and it simply did not.

So what to do about this? This is the point at which TK parts company with majority of the Korean public. Many Koreans, including Korea's opposition party, are calling for nullifying the agreement. I do not think that is a wise course of action.

What Koreans want--naturally and correctly--is Japan's contrition over these crimes. Koreans want Japan to admit that Japan was wrong to colonize Korea, wrong to begin a global war, and wrong to conscript a million Koreans to serve as slaves for the machinery of war. Koreans want from Japan those admissions with sincere self-reflection about its crimes, minus all the bullshit evasive maneuvers that Japan has taken so far, including in this agreement.

I want the same exact thing. But I do not think that an international agreement would achieve that end--especially not the kind signed by Shinzo Abe.

I believe Koreans would be well served to stare down the unyielding reality, that the agreement is ultimately a political document, and politics is the art of the possible. What Koreans want is moral vindication. Politics can indeed achieve moral vindication. (Post-World War II Germany, for example.) But to achieve the moral vindication, one must keep playing the politics.

It is not practically possible for Korea to re-negotiate. A strong poker hand loses its strength after the round is over. The showdown, unfortunately, came and went; all the advantages that Korea did have previous to this agreement no longer exist. The fact that the Park Geun-hye administration failed to maximize its advantages is rage-inducing, but there is no reason to expect that Korea can do any better in the hypothetical next round.

However unsatisfying, the gains from this agreement are not insignificant. In a number of ways, this agreement is in fact a step forward from Japan's previous statements. Japan did recognize that the Japanese military was involved in the conscription of Comfort Women without the evasive qualification. (Previously, Japan recognized the military's involvement, but also insisted that the military usually did not recruit directly.) The Japanese government did speak of its "responsibility" without qualifiers like "moral responsibility" (notwithstanding Japan's subsequent attempt to characterize its payment as an anything-but-legal-reparations.) The agreement stated that Abe was speaking as the representative of the Japanese nation, not as a mere individual. Japan is paying money out of its government budget, not through private citizens' donations.

These gains are not nothing. Although they are inadequate standing alone, skillful politicking can capitalize them into serving the true end of justice. Although the Japanese government is attempting to wiggle away from its apology as soon as it is written down, the words of the apology have independent strength. Against the backdrop of the words like "with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities" and Japan's "responsibilities," Japan's further attempts of evasion can only become more technical, tendentious and petty.

The thing to do, then, is not to demand a new round of governmental apology from Japan; it is to simply hold Japan to the words onto which it just signed. There is enough in those words to compel Japan to recognize the wrong that it had committed. Specifically, Japan must be made to answer these basic questions regarding Comfort Women:
Is it true that the Japanese military operated rape centers, euphemistically called Comfort Stations, for the pleasure of its soldiers?
Is it true that the Japanese military staffed these rape centers with hundreds of thousands young women, some as young as 13 or 14 years old, who were kidnapped from Korea?
Was it wrong for Japan to operate these rape centers, where hundreds of thousands of Korean women were raped dozens of times, every day for years?
These questions should be asked over and over again, until there is an unqualified "yes" to all of these questions from every meaningful level of the Japanese society--including the government, the universities, the media, conservatives, liberals, everyone. And if anyone answers "no" to any one of the questions above, there is now a ready retort: why did the Japanese government sign a statement saying otherwise?

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Good short term answer - the agreement now puts additional pressure on the deniers, and they'd be hard pressed to refute it.

    I wonder if there's a long term plan. Once the additional public pressure has reached a critical point, is there anything further that the government and the politicians can do? Or is the government's role in this effectively over, and now it's simply down to the people to make sure that these horrible crimes are never forgotten and never repeated? Perhaps it's too soon to tell, though.

  2. I can see why Abe and Japan wanted this issue to be over for business, international reputation reasons but what did Park Geunhye and broadly Korea get out of negotiating this garbage deal? I read a quote from a Korean diplomat saying something to the effect that an acceptable deal would be in which both sides get 50/50 but think they got 51 which tells you what kind of mentality the negotiator(s) had going into this. Also can you do a part 2 or a supplemental blog on Park Yuha and what her deal is?

  3. I actually met one lady who was a comfort woman. She came to my college to speak and I was asked to be the translator of the presentation. I read a short book she wrote, spent an evening talking to her firsthand, and helped translate during the q&a portion. This was about 12 years ago and unfortunately I heard she passed away. This matter has been deep in my heart and it saddens me greatly.

    Regarding the political agreement, I was initially outraged too but have now moved on to what's done is done mentality and think it's better to find ways to move forward in the best interest of the women. It's not realistic to believe there will be a better political agreement that can be reached. The Korean public is disallusioned to believe that Japan will actually bend over to meet all their demands and accept full responsibility. Yes, the crimes were atrocious and the women who survived need to have their story remembered and not forgotten. I cried openly during my talk with her (and I'm not a crier) hearing the injustice of it all. Although I wanted a different agreement, I'm also realistic 12 years later to take what we got and move forward to help the women

  4. a) This was the best deal South Korea could ever get, especially from a right-winger like Abe.
    b) The comfort women are literally dying off. Putting off a deal another year or ten would make any apology much less meaningful.
    c) No apology from a Japanese prime minister would ever fully satisfy the South Korean public. (cf. a)
    d) Was Abe sincere? Probably not. He's a politician. But it's also impossible to judge really, as it's entirely subjective. (cf. c)
    e) The statue outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul should be taken down because it's tacky as hell.
    f) South Korea is under no obligation to forget the Japanese occupation but (speaking as an American who is pretty sure Obama's finger-prints are all over this deal) there is a time when the regional situation in the Pacific needs to be addressed, and SK and Japan are economic and military allies at the end of the day whether they like it or not.
    g) There are plenty of left-wing Japanese who are completely contrite about the occupation of Korea. It's a shame the right-wingers are so much louder, but lumping all Japanese together on this issue isn't fair.

    1. Art is subjective but the practical effect of the statue as a work of art is pretty undeniable for both sides of the controversy. Some might say it's the highest purpose art can achieve.

    2. a) Incorrect.
      b) An "apology" that none of the surviving Comfort Women feel adequate is completely meaningless.
      c) Incorrect.
      d) It is not that hard to judge sincerity. People do it all the time, every day.
      e) You need to think harder about what you say.
      f) Being an ally is a choice.
      g) You know what isn't fair? Being kidnapped and raped dozens of times of day.

    3. In regard to the statue, it's one of the most poignant and powerful I can think of. As a designer and artist myself, I dream of creating something that thoughtful, provocative and heart-wrenching. Powerful stuff. It must remain where it is as a reminder of a past that should never, ever be repeated.

    4. James is correct for the most part... The statue is a very powerful symbol! But it should be moved to a different location. By placing it in front of the embassy your pointing the finger to the entire Japanese people which isn't fair. S. Korea should be glad that a Japanese politician let along a right winger like Abe actually done a deal on this. I read somewhere that a majority of people in Japan thinks this is a dead issue to them because they weren't involved. So this is the closet thing to a actual apology from the Japanese. I say move forward and focus on that little bombastic boy next door!

    5. What a shameful comment. The Japanese public thinks this is dead issue so Korean should be glad? If Germans thought Holocaust was a dead issue, would the injustice and tragedy of Nazi atrocities be any less credible? You need to think hard about why we don't condone persons or states to go around raping, murdering and pillaging.

    6. What a really unthoughtful sayings... I grew up in a country that experienced 3.5 years of Japan brutality during WWII claimed as "protective measure against the European countries." (Indonesia) Truly, if your country has never experienced such atrocities that other countries have had with having their citizens treated worse than shit, the least thing you can do is be quiet.

  5. Japan is long used to being able to provide paper thin excuses while continuing to do what it always has. Just look at the giant gambling and prostitution industries that function with the barest of hindrance by their technical illegality. Or the whaling ships with "RESEARCH" written in big bold letters on the side and the eating of all the blue fin tuna to extinction because "culture!" Or how about the state sponsored slave labor system where Chinese are brought over on "traineeship" visas to work in terrible conditions for far less than the minimum wage?

    If there is little need for dialogue, respect and understanding within the society domestically, where would the people or leaders learn the skills or compassion necessary to attempt to understand and deal with those outside of their society? Japan is as poorly equipped for real diplomacy or dialogue as it is for social reform. This is what power by way of seniority and consensus looks like. Arrogant, lazy and ignorant.

    Recently Abe got together a bunch of Japanese speaking ambassadors to have lunch with.

    Here is a section from Abe's address:

    "At the same time, the presence of people from overseas, like Your Excellencies, who understand and speak Japanese, is a great strength for Japan. I hope you will help depict Japan as it truly is. In particular, I have high expectations that, when this role is played by ambassadors, it is a truly powerful force in furthering the understanding of Japan in each of your respective countries."

    "Japan as it truly is". The "understanding of Japan". You hear this all the time. Never mind that these ambassadors are ambassadors of their own countries, -to- Japan and not the other way around. He simply assumes that, given they speak Japanese, they must love and understand Japan, and be ready to defend her and explain on her behalf. Never mind Japan's understanding of others. It can only be the case that they are misunderstood, and these misunderstandings need clarification, correction.

    1. Korea wants Japan to admit they were wrong in their dealings with Korea. If you're determined to drag Japan's own domestic policies into the argument then SK wouldn't hold up much better under scrutiny either. Best not to link Japan's domestic policies with this issue lest someone point the finger back at their own domestic situation.

  6. As you said, this is all just hollow, political posturing. But what normal people want - genuine contrition - does not look to be in the cards. So I feel like the negotiations and apologies are all irrevelant, and whatever Park's administration chooses to do does not really matter. I don't necessarily see a better negotiating strategy securing a better outcome. Whatever. I'm totally over this apology thing.

    Ultimately, if there was any genuine contrition on their part, they would work harder to be more honest in Japanese civil society about what actually happened and start acknowledging the legacy of colonialism and the benefits they derived at others' expense instead of sweeping everything under the rug, like the way Americans try to reckon with the legacy of slavery (often failing in unsightly fashion, but still making the effort). But again, just don't see it in the cards.

  7. "These questions should be asked over and over again, until there is an unqualified "yes" to all of these questions from every meaningful level of the Japanese society--including the government, the universities, the media, conservatives, liberals, everyone"

    TK are expecting way too much from Japan, and will probably keep asking these questions until he dies.

    I disagree with TK that America is the least racist country in the world. But for the sake of it, let's accept it. In the least racist country in the world then, the confederate flag flies on official building, and it is not unusual to hear conservative media personality go as far as saying Black people were better off back then. (And to the previous poster, no, the US is not really making an effort to reckon with legacy of slavery and subsequent horrors; beside social agitators and prominent public voices, "get over it" is what you will mostly hear.

  8. Thanks for this blog post TK. I am hoping you could follow up on a couple more questions that I have. While it is certainly true that this apology, while half-hearted, can make Japan more accountable for past war crimes, will it help with overall Korean-Japanese relations? I mean, there are still other issues, like the visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which holds the deceased Class A war criminals and effectively honour them, or even the Dokdo/Takeshima island dispute. I am thinking about this both on the level of diplomacy as well as public opinion, as it seems for the former this issue on the comfort women is over, yet it's still continuing in the latter.

  9. "What Koreans want--naturally and correctly--is Japan's contrition over these crimes."

    TK, when you mention "Japan" in this sentence, do you mean the Japanese government or do you want the Japanese public as a whole to be contrite?

    If the former, we may not get more than what Abe agreed to.

    If the latter - it's not happening. The Japanese population is large and diverse; some couldn't care less; some are more "pro-comfort women" than some Koreans in Korea, and some are revisionistic and ultra-right-wing in their outlook.

    A lot of those women, furthermore, were not directly kidnapped by Japanese troops or Japanese police. Some were promised jobs unrelated to sexual services and when they got to their destinations, they then found out they were going to become "comfort women." Let it be stated here that at least some of the brokers who hired and ultimately deceived some of those comfort women were Koreans who had no qualms in lying to and betraying their own compatriots for money. I am Korean myself and have seen this aplenty in my own lifetime - there's no reason to believe this wouldn't have happened during the occupation.

    1. The Japanese population is large and diverse

      The German population is likewise large and diverse, but they manage.

      A lot of those women, furthermore, were not directly kidnapped by Japanese troops or Japanese police.

      What difference does it make? If one hires a hitman to kill a person, one is not any less of a murderer.

      Some were promised jobs unrelated to sexual services and when they got to their destinations, they then found out they were going to become "comfort women."

      Kidnapping by deception is still kidnapping.

      Let it be stated here that at least some of the brokers who hired and ultimately deceived some of those comfort women were Koreans who had no qualms in lying to and betraying their own compatriots for money.

      So what?

    2. "Let it be stated here that at least some of the brokers who hired and ultimately deceived some of those comfort women were Koreans who had no qualms in lying to and betraying their own compatriots for money." - same excuse white Americans use to justify not making any reparations for African slavery

  10. More evidence that the GOJ (gov of Japan) is not sincere:

    Asking the US to block comfort women statues, which in any case would be in violation of the 1st amendment/free speech. Kinda ironic as the lawsuits about the Yasukuni shrine (to get living Koreans who want their names removed from the shrine) are denied on the grounds of freedom of religion (which the 1st amendment also provides in the US).

    Here are some additional steps for Japan to take now, according to a US think thank:


    Calling comfort women prostitutes, 17 days into the apology. I'm pretty sure this is a new (low) record.

  12. The comfort women issue is not all black and white:

    1. Nothing is all black and white, but the mind with a steady moral compass is hardly overwhelmed by the gradation.

    2. I think this quote from the NY Times article sums it up:

      "[Park Yuha] added that ... the government [of Japan] should still be held responsible ..."

      Alas, signs are not overwhemingly positive on this front:

      Granted, not everyone (currently or formerly) in the GOJ feels that way:


    More political moonwalking from the Japanese government. But sure. Koreans are the ones at fault for not moving on.

  14. To be exact, Abe is not son but grandson of a suspected Class A war criminal in the post-WWII Tokyo Tribunal. Wow, I find that he is younger than p-PKH.

  15. It is possible that not only the comfort women issue but also the attack on Pearl Harbor, Class A war crimes and Yasukuni become non-issue. Please learn something from a TV news show (20/20) and a lecture by Prof. Higgs:

  16. I've spent over 20 years looking into every primary source on the comfort women issue. I wonder how many of the commentators here have done the same.

    I've also spoken to dozens of Koreans who were born in the 1920’s and 1930’s including my grandparents about comfort women. What they witnessed was Korean fathers selling their daughters, Korean comfort station owners deceiving Korean women. They never witnessed Japanese military coercing any Korean women.

    Many of the Korean comfort women's fathers had debts and sold their daughters. The comfort station owners paid off their debts in advance, and depending on the amount of the debt, the woman's contract length was determined. Korean women were not allowed to leave until their debts were paid off. Any coercion, violence or confinement was exercised by the Korean owners. So if one wants to use the term "sex slaves" to describe former Korean comfort women, they were the sex slaves of Korean comfort station owners. They were not the sex slaves of the Japanese military.

    Korean newspaper reports from 1930's

    and a diary written by a Korean comfort station worker discovered in 2013

    confirm that Korean women were not coerced by the Japanese military. The comfort station owners that appear in the diary were all Koreans although they all had Japanese last names.

    The following is an excerpt from the U.S. military report.

    There are also a number of South Korean scholars who confirm that Korean women were not coerced by the Japanese military. Let me mention some of them.

    Professor Ahn Byong-jik of Seoul National University says, "Comfort women were recruited by business operators in Korea, and there was no need for the military to abduct them."

    Professor Chunghee Sarah Soh of San Francisco State University says, "Korean society must repudiate victimization, admit its complicity and accept that the system was not criminal. The case of a small number of Dutch and Filipino women who were coerced by lower ranked Japanese soldiers in the battlefields was an anomaly, and most women (Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese) were recruited and employed by comfort station owners."

    Professor Park Yuha of Sejong University says, "Korean women were not coerced by the Japanese military."

    Professor Jun Bong-gwan of Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology says, "We all knew that Korean comfort women were not coercively taken away by the Japanese military. The Japanese military allowed Korean comfort station owners to recruit women in the Korean Peninsula and operate comfort stations in the battlefields. The Japanese military was busy fighting all over Asia, and it certainly didn't have time to be in Korea recruiting women."

    I don't exonerate the Japanese military because its invasion into China and Southeast Asia did create the demand for comfort women. But the Korean narrative "The Japanese military showed up at the doors and abducted young Korean women" just didn't happen. The Korean comfort station owners capitalized on the demand, recruited Korean women, operated comfort stations and made lots of money. Japan has apologized for its part. South Korea should admit its complicity and stop demanding Japan for more apologies.

  17. I wish that Japan can make a sincere and heartfelt apology, not just money. Money, money, money, who cares about those? What we want is actual feelings. Besides, these real issues don't even appear in Japanese textbooks.

    I don't hate Japan. Japan, like any other countries, have their flaws. I love Japan like I love any other country in the World. But I also think it's time they started fixing controversy and relationships.

  18. Maybe we should remove the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii because it's too painful for all the Japanese tourists that visit Hawaii. While we are at it we should remove the Vietnam war memorial in Washington DC because it's a painful reminder of our government's failures in South East Asia.


Comments are not available on posts older than 60 days.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...