There has been a drastic increase in tension in the relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea: the Ambassador in Seoul and the Consul General in Busan have been temporary withdrawn, the talks on foreign exchange swaps have been suspended, and the conclusion of the agreement between the two countries on the exchange of military information is under a threat.
Last time, Japan withdrew its Ambassador to the Republic of Korea in 2012 after the South Korean President visited the disputed Liancourt Rocks. This time, the reason is different and the story starts on December 28, 2015, when the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea and Japan – Yun Byung-se and Fumio Kishida – reached an agreement on the issue of “comfort women” related to the (usually forced) recruitment of Korean women to work in the military comfort stations of the Japanese army during the World War Two.
We will cover the entire problem, its origin, and development in a separate article soon. For now, it is of note that, apart from the issue regarding the ownership of the Liancourt Rocks, this is one of the most significant obstacles to the stable development of the bilateral relations. Patriotic organizations have been focusing on and using this topic by holding demonstrations on it in front of the Embassy of Japan each Wednesday since 1992. Moreover, a monument of a “girl sitting on a chair” was erected near the Embassy as a silent reproach to the Japanese reminding them of “the victims of sexual slavery.”
During the negotiations in Seoul, Fumio Kishida announced that the Japanese government took responsibility for the deep wounds to the honour and dignity of many women, and offered a sincere apology on behalf of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who then personally called President of Korea Park Geun-hye and apologized. The parties also agreed that Japan would contribute 1 billion yen or 8.3 billion dollars to the Foundation to support the victims of sexual slavery that would be established by the South Korean government.
By signing the agreement, the parties announced a decisive and irreversible solution to the problem. However, both the professional patriots and the political opposition immediately called this agreement a shameful bargain. Japan’s confession of guilt and apologies will not have any legal effect and they are surely insincere, while a billion is no more than a pittance and the attempt to declare that a solution has been found to the problem that worries society is unacceptable and demonstrates the anti-national character of the regime.
On June 01, 2016, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan during the World War Two commenced operations in Seoul. The Council includes Japanologists, former diplomatic officials, and justice officers.
On August 24, the Japanese Cabinet of Ministers allocated the promised billion yen as follows: the surviving victims (only 40 people) would get 10 million yen each or 100 thousand dollars; the families of the deceased would get 2 million yen or 20 thousand dollars in stages. 80% of the funds will be used for this purpose, the rest will be used to finance projects and events to honour of all the victims of sexual slavery.
In fact, 13 of the surviving victims have argued against the compensation as they believe it is not enough to solve the problem of sexual slavery. Some of them have conducted a press conference stating that no money can repay their pain and suffering.
However, it is curious that these 13 victims live in special care houses; those who do not live at the expense of the state, on the contrary, highly appreciated the agreement.
On October 14, the Foundation, named the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, started to pay out compensation to the sexual slavery victims and to members of their families that had filed applications. Since September, the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation have conducted consultations with 32 out of 46 victims of the sexual slavery and members of the families of the deceased. 29 victims and the relatives expressed their readiness to accept the terms of the compensation repayment project proposed by the Foundation.
The process was launched. But on December 9, 2016, the impeachment of Park Geun-hye took place, after which the opposition started to talk about the need to revise the shameful bargain demanding its termination and the start of the new negotiations. In response, Yun Byung-se announced on December 22, 2016, that the reached agreement was the optimal way to solve the problem and it would be hardly possible to conclude an agreement with better terms in the future. The Foreign Affairs Ministry representative Cho June-hyuck declared that 34 out of 46 victims of the specified crime that were alive at the moment when the agreement was concluded welcomed the steps taken in this direction.
In reaction to this, a public organization placed the second “girl sitting on a chair” statue in front of the consulate general of Japan in Busan on December 28, 2016. Within four hours, the police had chased away the organization members and dismantled the monument, as the object was installed without the consent of the local authorities. This caused public outrage, and the next day, on December 29, the Japanese Defense Minister made a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine which required an adequate response.
On December 30, they returned the statue and the authorities announced that this issue solely concerned the relations between the Republic of Korea and Japan, therefore, it was not within their remit. On January 4, the Korean Association of Women who suffered from sexual slavery during World War Two conducted the latest 1,264th demonstration in front of Japan’s Embassy, during which the participants called for the reached agreement to be terminated. Instead of the agreement, they demanded that the Japanese government officially admit their guilt for the military crime, issue a formal apology, and “take legally-justifie
This time, the Japanese party acted on principle. On January 6, during a meeting with journalists, the Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, Yoshihide Suga, demanded that the monument be removed. Japan is persistent in its demands that the monument be removed by the South Korean government and the city authorities as soon as possible: “the installation of such a statue despite the existing agreement causes deep regret and it will have a negative impact on bilateral relations.” Prime Minister Abe officially demanded that the South Korean authorities fulfil their obligations.
Tokyo believes that Seoul is violating the agreement terms: in fact, Japan has fulfilled its part of the agreement, and the issues should be regarded as solved. In theory, the first monument should actually be dismantled let alone new ones being erected. Until the monument has not been removed, Tokyo is taking counter measures which include the withdrawal of diplomatic officials, a ban on the participation of the Consulate General’s employees in events related to Busan, the suspension of the talks on the foreign exchange swaps and bilateral high-level meetings on economic issues.
The Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Finance of South Korea did not expect such a response. All they could do was express their regret and note that “the deterioration of the relations between Seoul and Tokyo due to the problem caused by monuments that were installed by public organizations not the government is unacceptable.” Yun Byung-se pointed out that similar “unilateral actions taken by Japan may have a negative impact on the relations between the two countries” and immediately highlighted the visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and other “statements insulting South Koreans.” As it turned out, at a meeting with journalists (the date of which is not specified), the Japan’s Foreign Minister, Fumio Kishida, noted that the Japanese party had “only lost 1 billion yen” in the dispute about the victims of sexual slavery and Shinzo Abe “has no intention of sending a letter of apology regarding sexual slavery victims.” Therefore, “the cooling in relations between South Korea and Japan will continue until Tokyo expresses sincerity in its approach to solving disputes with Seoul.”
Meanwhile, South Korean political experts announced that such a demarche was a sign of Abe’s weakness, “whose government was strongly criticized due to inefficient talks with Vladimir Putin on the Kuril Islands.”
In turn, a number of Japanese experts have reminded that “public organizations” often push the boundaries where the authorities are unable to go to extremes and recalled the distribution of the leaflets in the North and the famous assassination attempt on Japan’s Ambassador whose organizer – the leader of such a “public organization” was put on probation.
It remains to be seen whether Seoul and Tokyo manage to get past this point. Tokyo is ready to do so; this issue has taken root in the state ideology in South Korea, however.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“