Northeast Asia is a geostrategic hotspot. An ascendant China is asserting its claims to disputed islands and waters. An unpredictable North Korea is wont to threaten with missiles. And under a new president, the United States is an untested ally. But for Japan and South Korea, the two countries most affected by these developments, bilateral relations are currently being held hostage by a bronze statue of a barefoot teenage girl.
The statue in question was erected opposite the Japanese consulate in the South Korean city of Busan in late December and has led to Tokyo recalling its ambassador from Seoul, as well as suspending high-level economic policy discussions with its Korean neighbour.
The cause of this friction is a statue, which is a symbol of the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of women who were forced to service the Japanese military’s World War II brothels. Known as “comfort women”, these former sex slaves were “recruited” from Korea, China and parts of Southeast Asia. Although there are only around 40 surviving comfort women in Korea, they are a potent reminder of Japanese wartime atrocities as well as what many consider to be the lack of sincere atonement on the part of Japan.
In December 2015, a year before the Busan statue was erected, Tokyo and Seoul had concluded an agreement, supposedly a “final and irreversible” resolution to the comfort women issue. Japan had apologised and agreed to pay ¥1bn (just over $8 million) into a fund to help care for the surviving comfort women. On its part, South Korea agreed to consider the matter resolved. The accord was hailed as historic, opening the possibility of a new era in Japanese-Korean relations.
Tokyo sees the erection of the Busan statue as a violation of the agreement. Seoul counters that while the location of the statue is unfortunate, it was put up by a civil society group over which the government has no control. South Korea’s assertion is partially true. However, official permissions are required to put up statues. In fact, the local police had removed the statue when it was first erected precisely because the requisite permissions were lacking.
But public pressure forced local authorities to reinstate the statue within a few days of its removal. This “pressure” intensified when Japan’s Defence Minister Tomomi Inada visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a memorial for Japan’s war dead that includes many officers convicted of war crimes. China and South Korea always perceive visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders as inflammatory. Clearly, the 2015 agreement notwithstanding, no genuine burying of the historical hatchet had taken place. And symbolic tit-for-tat irritants retain an outsized ability to derail any lasting rapprochement between Japan and former victims of its colonial rule.
Given that South Korea’s President, Ms. Park Geun-hye, who had negotiated the 2015 deal with Japan, has been impeached on corruption charges, the matter of comfort women will only gain more momentum. Fresh elections are due soon, and the main opposition party has already threatened to ditch the agreement if it comes to power.
That many in Korea reject the 2015 settlement has to do with perceived dissembling on the part of the Japanese. This is a somewhat subjective assessment. Over the decades Japan has made several contrite statements about its role in World War II. In 1992, for example, then Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, apologised to the comfort women from the “bottom of his heart.” A year later in a speech to the Diet, another Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, expressed “deep remorse” and apologised for the “great sufferings and sorrow” that Japan’s colonial rule had caused.
Charges of insincerity
Accusations of Japanese insincerity in South Korea and China are often politically motivated, serving as convenient ways for governments to deflect attention from contentious domestic matters. Yet, it is true that Japan’s acknowledgements of its brutal past are of a notably different tenor from Germany, for example.
In Berlin, sites such as the former headquarters of the secret police have been turned into museums with blunt names like “the topography of terror.” In contrast, the Yasukuni shrine not only pays homage to war criminals (although millions of others are also commemorated), but houses the Yushukan War Memorial museum, where the displays largely omit the suffering caused by Japan’s actions while playing up the heroism of Japan’s military. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has himself in the past implied that he did not believe comfort women had been coerced into the sex trade.
Given their objective geopolitical circumstances, the rational priority for Japan and South Korea should be the development of close defence and intelligence cooperation rather than quibbles over statues. But, as is often the case, the emotional politics of humiliation and nationalism are keeping the wounds of history from scabbing over, and preventing the kind of bold and new collaborative initiatives that would be in the interest of both countries and the region.