The issue of the comfort women has been a stumbling-block for Japan-South Korean relations. Where does the issue stand today? How will the relationship between Japan and South Korea be changed - or not changed - by the “final agreement” on the comfort women issue reached by the foreign ministers of both countries at the end of 2015? Furthermore, what has been the American reaction to the agreement - a reaction carrying particular weight for both South Korea and Japan? The diplomatic accord reached on December 28, 2015, announced the “final and irreversible resolution” to the comfort women issue, which had for many years been a source of friction between Japan and South Korea. Just this wording alone makes the December accord an epochal event even in the long history of Japan-South Korea relations.
The following is a status report on the points outlined above, current as of the end of February, 2016 - exactly two months past the signing of the accord on December 28. I will frame this report using the perspective of Washington, DC, where I am currently stationed.
I adopt this approach, not merely because Washington is where I conduct my reporting and commentary, but also because the American reaction to, and awareness of, the comfort women accord is of particular importance. The reaction of the American superpower is the most effective barometer for measuring the reaction of the international community as a whole. Moreover, the US is the most important ally for both Japan and South Korea.
What’s more, America was the biggest broker of the conclusion of the agreement between Japan and South Korea at the end of last year. The Obama Administration strongly desired that Japan and South Korea resolve their standoff over the comfort women problem and fall into step on the security front.
Since she took office, South Korean President Park Geun-hye has widely touted her condition that, before any summit with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo could take place, “Japan must first take good-faith measures on the comfort women issue.” It was due in large part to pressure from the Obama Administration that, three-and-a-half years later, President Park withdrew that condition and met with Prime Minister Abe. It seems that December’s joint accord, strongly desired by the Obama Administration, was the result of Obama’s team’s having softened the South Koreans’ particularly hard-line stance.
Before looking at the American reaction, it should be noted that “America,” being diverse, could denote many different groups. I will therefore divide my report into four different sections: First, the American government and Congress; second, the American news media; third, American activists and academics; and fourth, the average American citizen.
The Reaction of the US Government and Congress
The Obama Administration’s reaction to the Japan-South Korea agreement was almost instantaneous. They welcomed the agreement with open arms.
Immediately following the announcement of the agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement saying, “We welcome this agreement as contributing to improved relations between two of the US most important allies.” The statement added, “We applaud the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea for having the courage and vision to reach this agreement.” This is an entirely fitting reaction from an Obama Administration that had sought just such an accord.
A great majority in the US Congress also welcomed the agreement. While the comfort women issue had not been a matter of real concern for many members of the House and Senate, the state of the Japan-South Korea relationship nevertheless attracts much attention. It is therefore natural that a large majority of senators and representatives would positively accept a development leading to improved ties between South Korea and Japan.
Sen. John McCain, the chairman of the Committee on Armed Services and the standard-bearer of the Republican majority in the Senate, was symbolic of the Senate’s reaction in the statement he issued welcoming the accord, which, he said, “announce[d] the arrival of a new era in Japanese-South Korean relations.” Chinese-American Rep. Judy Chu (Democratic Party), who has been critical of Japan on the issue of the comfort women in particular and matters related to historical consciousness more broadly, also expressed her agreement with the accord, emphasizing, however, that it was “an historic apology for an historic wrong by Japan.”
Out of the entire US Congress, Rep. Mike Honda (Democratic Party), the well-known veteran Japan-basher over the issue of the comfort women, was almost alone in expressing his disappointment with the agreement. “I am deeply disappointed this agreement lacks a commitment by Japan to ensure they will no longer whitewash history and will educate future generations [in correct history]. I am also disappointed this apology is not a formal and official apology issued by the Japanese Diet,” Rep. Honda’s statement read in part.
But this reaction was more or less just as was to be expected. This is because Rep. Honda, whose views hew even more closely to Chinese organizations’ than to South Korean ones’, has for many years been denouncing Japan. Rep. Honda has intimate ties to the Chinese government, and enjoys the complete support of the California-based “Global Alliance for Preserving the History of the War of Resistance against Japan.” Rep. Honda was also indefatigable in securing the passage of the resolution censuring Japan in the US House of Representatives over the issue of the comfort women. There remains, therefore, the distinct possibility that Global Alliance will continue to use Rep. Honda to attack Japan over the comfort women. This is a factor that lies, as it were, outside of the Japan-South Korea relationship.
The American News Media Reaction
Overall, the American news media’s evaluation of the recent agreement was also positive.
The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the NBC television network, and other major media outlets all reported in a similar vein to a Wall Street Journal article to the effect that, “The effort on the part of Japanese and South Korean leaders to resolve the decades-old comfort women issue has made possible mutual engagement on Asian security concerns, such as North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, which also contributes to the American national interest.”
However, as far as the comfort women issue itself is concerned, nearly all of the articles in the American media have emphasized that, “at least tens of thousands of women were lured or coerced to work in brothels that served Japan’s army,” as the New York Times did in an editorial on the subject.
“[During]World War II[,] the Japanese imperial army draft[ed] tens of thousands of wartime sex slaves, many of them Koreans, into military brothels.”(Wall Street Journal) “Comfort women' is a euphemism for women coerced by the Japanese Imperial Army to work as sex slaves during World War II.” (Washington Post)
Phrasing such as this was repeated in almost every major American media outlet. Some publications also included the expression, “200,000 comfort women.”
It goes without saying that “200,000 sex slaves forcibly abducted by the Japanese military” is a denunciation with no basis in fact. Even as American media reporting on the recent diplomatic agreement between Japan and South Korea welcomed that accord, those same media outlets were still foregrounding the same kind of hoary, spurious assertions as before.
The American media even reported as though the Japanese government had, in the accord with South Korea, admitted to and apologized for the baseless assertions listed above. This is a very important point for Japan. We are reminded again that these criticisms, which have already been proved to be completely false, have nevertheless spread throughout the whole world. In the Japan-South Korea agreement, the Japanese side did not take the opportunity to disavow the false assertions that the South Korean side has long made, such as that there were “200,000 women forcibly recruited” or that the “comfort women [worked] under the name of the Women’s Volunteer Corps.” This kind of false assertion was not included in the agreement, but in the text of the agreement the Japanese statement clearly said that the “military participated” in the comfort women issue, and that the “Japanese government bore responsibility” for it. The agreement further expressed the “heartfelt apology and remorse” of the prime minister, and promised to provide “funds from the Japanese government’s budget for the healing of former comfort women.”
Many in the American media are reporting as though these apologetic measures were taken by Japan in acceptance of the accusations of, for example, “forced recruitment” and “sexual enslavement.”
Therefore, it would seem that this Japan-South Korea agreement risks closing the window of opportunity for Japan to set the record straight in proclaiming the facts. It was thus very appropriate on this score, and in light of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' engagement on this issue thus far, that Deputy Foreign Minister Sugiyama Shinsuke gave a speech during a United Nations committee meeting February 16 in which he disavowed that the comfort women were “sex slaves”who had been “forcibly abducted.”
The Reaction of American Activists and Academics
For many years, a certain minority of activists and scholars has worked in tandem with South Korea and the People’s Republic of China to denounce Japan unilaterally over the comfort women issue. This minority, which heaps pitiless criticism on Japan, can be called the most hard-core anti-Japanese force on the comfort women issue in the US.
However, the recent diplomatic agreement between Japan and South Korea has exerted a subtle but deeply significant influence upon this aggressive minority. One can even discern that the agreement has had the effect of constraining that minority’s activities.
The first example of this is a change in the Nelson Report, an online newsletter specializing in Asian topics. Site owner Chris Nelson is a liberal Democrat who has thus far toed the China-South Korea line on historical questions involving Japan. Nelson has traditionally been a strong critic of Japan, and in particular of Prime Minister Abe. In this sense, one might say that Chris Nelson is an activist.
The American experts who write for Nelson’s online newsletter have also been overwhelmingly hostile to Japan on questions of history. However, Chris Nelson himself, acting as editor of the same opinion forum that had long been inimical to Japan, not only approved of the Japan-South Korea accord, but even went so far as to praise it. Many associated experts who subscribe to the Nelson Report and often write articles for the publication also welcomed the agreement. And Nelson sharply criticized longtime Japan-basher over the comfort women issue, activist Mindy Kotler, for denouncing the accord, telling her, in effect, that she should stop absolutely refusing to accept anything that Japan does. This is a clear change from Nelson’s previous position. The second example of subtle but profound change has been in the stance taken by Connecticut University Professor Alexis Dudden, the most hardline anti-Japan activist in the entire American academy on the comfort women issue. For more than twenty years, Dudden has worked in close collaboration with South Korea on historical problems, consistently blaming Japan. Dudden found Emperor Hirohito guilty over the comfort women issue at the Women's International War Crimes (Mock) Tribunal on Japan's Military Sexual Slavery, held in Tokyo, and secured the passage of a resolution censuring Japan over the comfort women issue during a plenary session of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC. Recently, Dudden has been on a publicity tour inside of South Korea as part of a movement to have the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution.
Dudden's advice has been sought out even by the South Korean government. But at a symposium held January 11 in Washington, DC, on Japanese-South Korean historical problems, she said of the recent agreement between South Korea and Japan that it was preferable in that it allowed both Japan and South Korea to work together to face security threats such as North Korea's nuclear armament.
Dudden still persists in criticizing only Japan over the comfort women issue itself, using expressions such as, “the national crime of the Japanese military’s forced abduction.” But her positive appraisal of the Japan-South Korea agreement is a marked change from her overall anti-Japanese stance thus far.
Moreover, the aforementioned Washington symposium, at which Dudden also appeared, was a much more balanced gathering than one has typically encountered in the past. The symposium was hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which invited Sejong University Professor Park Yu-ha, female South Korean scholar and author of a book on the comfort women titled, Comfort Women of the Empire. Professor Park has been sued by the South Korean authorities for defaming former comfort women by writing in her book that, “the comfort women were on friendly terms with the Japanese soldiers” and “there was no forced recruitment by the Japanese military on the Korean Peninsula.”
I see it as a sign of a subtle turning of the tide that the Wilson Center, which has deep ties with the US Congress, invited to a Washington, DC, symposium on the comfort women a South Korean scholar of such objective viewpoint as Prof. Park. Until recently, comfort women-themed gatherings in Washington, DC, have been completely one-sided, Japan-bashing affairs, in which the “forcibly abducted sex slaves” narrative prevailed throughout. Prof. Park is not particularly speaking up for Japan, but her assessment is sufficiently “heterodox” to have been denounced by Alexis Dudden; in other words, Prof. Park's views are objective.
However, Kotler is organizing a symposium on the comfort women issue in Washington, DC, in early March based on the traditional Japan-bashing stance. The symposium, which will be co-sponsored by some American universities, will have a lineup quite different from the usual experts at major American universities and research institutions who have made statements about the comfort women in the past. Instead, a Dutch journalist and an Australian scholar, among others, are scheduled to attend. This gives the impression of a retreat of several steps from the position taken up heretofore.
The Reaction of Average Americans
It should be said at the outset that, in general, the average American citizen has very little interest in the debate between Japan and South Korea over the comfort women issue. It is a perennial rarity for the typical American to have either interest in or knowledge of these kinds of foreign historical questions, even when they somehow involve the US.
Even in 2007, when the US House of Representatives passed a resolution during a plenary session condemning Japan over the comfort women issue, this development had no real impact in America. There was no national news coverage of the resolution by the American media whatsoever. Although it was covered as a major story in Japan, it was virtually unmentioned in the US, the place where the resolution actually took place. We must first of all be aware that there is this much of a gap in interest in the comfort women issue between the US and Japan.
But as outlined above, the recent Japan-South Korea agreement was reported on in the major American media outlets, however briefly. This means that the average American citizen has at least some modicum of understanding of the issue, even though any ongoing interest might be slight. However, because most of the reporting on the agreement contained phrasing, as discussed earlier, such as, “the comfort women were forcibly abducted by the Japanese military for use as sex slaves,”a mistaken understanding of the issue has spread out among the average American populace to a certain extent.
One can find a direct, grassroots-level reaction to the comfort women issue in the US only among Korean Americans and in heavily Korean-American districts. Concretely speaking, these districts are in, for example, California in the west, New York and New Jersey in the east, and in the areas of Virginia near Washington, DC, in the south. There are about 1.7 million Korean Americans in the US, or about 0.5% of the total American population. Nevertheless, when they band together and set out to work on certain officials within the federal government, Korean Americans are able to exert an influence on the US Congress.
Looking at the trends among Korean Americans vis-à-vis the recent Japan-South Korea diplomatic accord, one finds that there is intense opposition to the agreement among certain segments of that population.
Toward the end of January, some Korean Americans calling themselves “Korean-American Citizens for the Comfort Women”staged a protest outside the Los Angeles offices of the Department of State. This group of several dozen people was opposed to the recent Japan-South Korea agreement, and was demonstrating against the American State Department, which was the agency responsible for brokering the accord.
The Korean-American group focused their denunciations in particular on Deputy Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken, even going so far as to attempt to collect signatures to a petition to the Obama Administration demanding that Deputy Secretary Blinken be relieved of his duties. The group's petition complained that Deputy Secretary Blinken had been partial toward Japan and unfriendly toward South Korea, the result of which was the Japan-South Korea agreement.
However, these actions were carried out by just one part of the Korean-American community, which in turn represents just a tiny fraction of the total US population. There is no indication that these kinds of activities will expand in the future.
The ongoing erection of comfort women statues and memorials in areas across the US with high concentrations of Korean-American residents also looks to continue apace. But because the government of South Korea itself has formally stated that it will not go on attacking Japan over the comfort women issue, it would seem that, henceforth, there will be no more encouragement of statue and memorial construction from that quarter. On the contrary, it seems that there will be a movement toward much greater restraint going forward.
As detailed above, the American reaction to the Japan-South Korea agreement on the comfort women issue has been, overall, neither entirely straightforward nor positive. Still, it can be said that, generally speaking, things are moving in the direction of a drawdown of the comfort women issue as a negative factor in the trilateral relationship of Japan, South Korea, and the US.
This trilateral relationship was also greatly helped by the unexpected belligerency of
North Korea soon after the first of the year. North Korea's nuclear test explosion in pursuit of nuclear armament, along with their launch test as part of their long-range ballistic missile development, have forcibly demonstrated to both South Korea and Japan the threat that they have in common. The result has been that Japan and South Korea, along with their mutual ally, the US, have begun demonstrating a shared understanding of and response to such threats.
In the past, the comfort women issue would inevitably have been a hindrance to cooperation in circumstances such as these. Now, though, we are left with the unforeseen impression that the comfort women issue has largely retreated from view on the level of governmental interaction between South Korea and Japan. It appears that both sides are on their way to arriving at a basic understanding akin to what common sense already dictates - namely, that questions of history should be put to the side when security is at stake.
Thus, it can be said that the Japan-South Korea diplomatic statement has, in terms of Japan's strategic interests, brought about a turn toward improved relations with South Korea. This is a trend that is also welcomed by the US. This is because for the US, which is most concerned with security when it comes to the current state of East Asia, the cooperation of both Japan and South Korea is an indispensable element in formulating an effective response to the threat posed by an expansionist China and an increasingly aggressive North Korea.
Looking strictly at the relationship between Japan and South Korea, there is also much to discourage optimism. Some influential members of the South Korean private sector and opposition parties have already made it clear that they reject the resolution of the comfort women issue. In Japan, too, there is the fear that statements, such as those outlined above, to the effect that “the Japanese government bears responsibility” and “Prime Minister Abe issues a heartfelt apology” could come back to haunt the Japanese side. And there is no expectation that the comfort woman statue standing in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul will be demolished anytime soon.
However, if opposition to the agreement among the South Koreans lares up again, and the traditional attacks on Japan over the comfort women issue continue, the Japanese side can counter by pointing out, in light of the recent accord, that the South Korean government vowed that the resolution was both final and irreversible. The statement has been accepted as a pledge that South Korea, as a nation, will no longer issue complaints against Japan over the comfort women issue. Japan may henceforth take the moral and ethical high ground over South Korea in critiquing whichever South Korean government or president happens to be in power.
And, as the American reaction reported above shows, the US approves of and supports the resulting diplomatic arrangement that is beneficial for Japan. In this sense, we can say that the recent Japan-South Korea agreement has been, for Japan, a tremendous diplomatic success.