On September 25, the South Korean President Moon Jae-in who arrived in New York in order to partake in the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly held a meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and its main topic was not informing Tokyo of the results of the summit or working out a joint strategy on North Korea, but rather the Comfort Women issue (called wianbu in Korean), which we discussed on several occasions.
Let us remind the reader that, on December 28, 2015, during the reign of the former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the Foreign Ministers of the 2 countries, Yun Byung-se and Fumio Kishida agreed that Japan would acknowledge its responsibility for the wianbu, formally apologise to the victims of this crime and allocate funds for establishing the so-called Reconciliation and Healing Foundation amounting to 1 b yen. In response, the South Korean party was to stop using the term ‘sexual slavery’ and refrain from holding campaigns on this subject.
The money was allocated, received and distributed, however this decision received a lot of vocal criticism from the South Korean community with strong nationalist ideals, including the victims of sexual slavery and leftist civil organisations who wanted to attack Park Geun-hye above all. The official apology was declared insufficiently sincere and of formal nature without punishing the individuals responsible for establishing the wianbu system and the negotiations were declared behind the scenes talks disregarding the interests of the victims.
After the inauguration of Moon Jae-in as the South Korean President, the government made a working group for studying the circumstances in which the Agreement was made. Naturally, the new investigation found that the opinions of the sexual slavery victims had not been duly considered. Furthermore, it was noted that the negotiations had had a nature of a diplomatic parley and had been held behind closed doors and there was no information concerning the circumstances of the document signing. In response, Japan objected and announced its intention to comply with the Agreement since it had fulfilled its obligations.
During the summit, Shinzō Abe called on Moon Jae-in to maintain the arrangement reached in the framework of which the issue must be closed after the formal apology had been made and the compensation had been paid. The South Korean reaction was ambiguous. On one hand, the President emphasised that the South Korean government did not intend to void the Agreement made in 2015 or require new negotiations from Japan. On the other hand, Moon Jae-in announced his intention to disband the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation since the Foundation could not perform its functions at the moment as its leadership had resigned and the whole arrangement had received a lot of sharp public criticism. Moreover, the funds allocated to the Foundation had already been drawn anyway.
Well, it was a logical ending to the current stage of the discussion, so let us remind the reader how the situation developed before the summit after the diplomatic crisis connected with the wianbu in late 2017 – early 2018.
On February 26, 2018, the South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who presented the government stance regarding the issue of the Japanese Army field brothels during the World War II at the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, stated that while negotiating the resolution of this issue the victims of the tragic events had been insufficiently considered and that the South Korean government would deal with the issue of restoring the dignity of the victims. She added that one needed to learn one’s history lessons so as to avoid repeating the past mistakes.
This statement became the first international expression of the South Korean government stance on the sexual slavery issue after Seoul voiced its disagreement with the terms of the Agreement reached in 2015 and reflects a somewhat milder position. Instead of using the term ‘sexual slavery,’ Kang Kyung-wha formulated the issue as ‘sex crimes during the War.’
Furthermore, concerning the Agreement of 2015, it was noted that ‘the parties did realise the significance of the victims’ opinions, but failed to adopt sufficient measures to consider them,’ which resulted in ‘the victims remaining discontent since, in their opinion, the main point of this issue is about Japan acknowledging its legal responsibility and the officials making a formal apology.’
However, Japan’s position had remained unchanged. Junichi Ihara, the Japanese Ambassador to Geneva, held a press conference where he emphasised that a) the Agreement of 2015 ended the dispute between the 2 countries regarding the sexual slavery issue; b) South Korea must comply with the Agreement reached; c) one cannot apply to the UN with an issue that had been resolved completely and irrevocably.
On March 1, Moon Jae-in made a rather more traditional statement to the effect that Japan had better remember its history and learn from its mistakes. A genuine resolution of the wianbu issue could be possible only if Japan assumed the responsibility for its war crimes and learned lessons from its history. Moon Jae-in demanded that Tokyo make a sincere apology to the Korean people and the victims of the crimes committed during the years of colonial occupation. It is only after that that the relations between Seoul and Tokyo could become positive.
In response to the Tokyo call to comply with the Agreement the 2 countries reached in 2015, Moon Jae-in stated that Japan, which is responsible for the existence of this whole affair, had no right to claim that the sexual slavery issue had been completely resolved. As one may gather, Moon Jae-in did not specify what exactly Japan needed to do, so as there would always be some uncertainty and so that one could always say that whatever Japan had already done was not enough.
At the same time, the South Korean President emphasised that he did not require any special treatment on the part of Japan. He only hoped that Japan would end its disputes with the neighbouring states whom it used to oppress. Only in that case would mutual prosperity be possible. The Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that he found these words of Moon Jae-in ‘extremely deplorable’ and emphasised that the South Korean President’s statement ran contrary to the Agreement reached by Seoul and Tokyo.
After that, for the first time in 4 years, the term ‘Japanese Army field brothels during the World War II’ appeared in the social studies textbooks for South Korean elementary schools, as well as illustrations on sexual slavery with explanations that ‘not only Korean women, but also those from other Japanese colonies were sent to the Japanese Army field brothels by force.’ It is about the black and white photographs dated 1944 featuring 7 barefooted women standing on the ground near the brick wall of the Japanese field brothel in China during its occupation.
Then, a 19 second long video was spread which confirmed that the Japanese military had brutally murdered Korean women who had also been used as sex slaves by force during the World War II. This video had remained in the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for 70 years and was found there by the investigation group working under the auspices of the Seoul Mayor’s Office and the Seoul National University. The short film was shot in the Chinese Province of Yunnan where there were up to 80 wianbu of the Japanese Army. Let us not mention the fact that the Japanese would shoot their wounded soldiers and civil personnel in a similar situation so that the enemy would get no living prisoners.
On August 10, Seoul opened the State Research Centre that will deal with sexual slavery issues. It will continue to gather data and carry out research that had been previously conducted by private research organisations on an irregular basis; it will also translate into Korean and classify all the information on the topic that exists abroad. The Centre’s operation will be aimed at gathering and analysing both domestic and foreign sources, as well as establishing an archive of its own. Especially significant materials are planned to be included in the State Register. The work of the Centre is managed by the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.
At the same time, about 3,185 materials that were included in the South Korean State Register over 2013 – 2014 will be included in the United Nations Memory of the World Register. These are interviews with sexual slavery victims, video materials documenting psychology tests and press conferences, as well as 220 photographs of exceptional value.
On August 14, the Nostalgic Garden in the South Chungcheong Province hosted the event commemorating the sexual slavery victims. 400 people partook in the event, including surviving wianbu, as well as officials and representatives of public organisations.
Since 2018, this day has been officially recognised as the Japanese Army Sexual Slavery Victims Memorial Day, as 27 years ago on this day, Kim Hak-sun, one of the wianbu, testified to this crime for the first time ever. Earlier, the Sexual Slavery Victims Memorial Day was observed at the initiative of public organisations. However, the event became an official one in compliance with the decree issued by the South Korean government.
On August 31, the UN called on Japan to put an end to the sexual slavery issue despite the Agreement signed on December 28, 2015. To be more precise, at its recent session, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) announced that the circumstances of signing the Agreement had been questionable and the negotiations had had a nature of general diplomatic parley rather than focused on the victims of the crime. The fact that the negotiations had been held behind closed doors and the circumstances of the Agreement signing had remained unknown received criticism as well.
On September 3, the 92-year-old wianbu Kim Bok-dong held a one-man rally before the building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This action marked the first event among those organised by the Justice for the Comfort Women organisation. Kim Bok-dong denounced the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation and emphasised that she was fighting for justice, not for money. The former comfort woman demanded that the foundation which had been established to distribute the compensation provided by the Japanese authorities be closed immediately.
By the way, North Korea monitored the situation closely and Rodong Sinmun published an article on the ruthless beastly sex crimes committed by Japan in late September.
How can one sum up the story? Obviously, the wianbu issue has not been completely resolved since the South Korean government still finds itself in a rather inconvenient situation. On one hand, the anti-Japan rhetoric with demands for apology and compensation for the colonial past of the country is an integral part of the South Korean ideology. On the other hand, the country does not want to be viewed as one that is ready to unilaterally revise the Agreement reached after the other party fulfilled its obligations to the full extent. On the still other hand, the comfort women issue is not the only issue inherent in the South Korean – Japanese relations and the next article of the author will deal with what remains there in other areas.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Centre for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”