The Korean government crushed the comfort women five years ago agreement.
On the 28th, we reach the 5th anniversary after the Park Geun-hye government established the Korea-Japan Comfort Women agreement in December of 2015. It was not a perfect agreement by any stretch, but it was a significant achievement realized on the 50th anniversary of the normalization of relations between the Korean and Japanese governments.
The text of the agreement admitted to the involvement of the Japanese military, clearly wrote out the responsibilities held by the Japanese government and included a deep apology from the prime minister of Japan. It confirmed that the Japanese government would spend its own budget to run operations that would restore the honor and dignity of the victims of the comfort women system, as well as help heal the wounds in their hearts. In July 2016, the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation was established based on this agreement. Later, the Japanese government sent 1 billion yen, and the Foundation distributed 100 million won each to 35 of the 47 surviving ladies at that time, and 20 million won to the 64 family members of the 199 deceased comfort women.
In Korean society, the comfort women debate has been dominated by the “Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan”, which changed its name to the “Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance for the Issues of Military Sexual Slavery by Japan”, established in November 1990. In 1995, under Japanese Prime Minister Murayama, the “Asian Women’s Fund” was established . The Korean Council asserted that the Korean side must reject this, since Japan needed to pay national reparations through a legislative decision by the diet. However, some victims, like the now deceased Sim Mi-ja, strongly opposed the Korean Council’s uncompromising stance.
There are many other cases where pressure from the Korean Council made solving the comfort women issue more difficult. In December 2011, Japan made a significant unofficial offer during a Korean-Japanese summit. However, the Lee Myung-bak government had to follow the orders of the Korean Council and held the line at “hold Japan, as a nation, responsible”, nullifying negotiations and restarting from square one.
The Moon Jae-in government, in December 27th, 2017, the second anniversary of the Korea-Japan Comfort Women Agreement, released a report detailing the investigative process of the Park Geun-hye government that lead to the agreement. The report criticized the Park government, saying that the approach was not victim-centered, that the negotiation process was done in secret and without democratic oversight, and that the diplomatic policy and decision making process was monopolized by the Cheongwadae (the Blue House, the president’s official residence and executive office), marginalizing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that should have been the core.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha announced that the Korean government would match the 1 billion yen that the Japanese government put forth by paying 10.3 billion won, an equivalent amount of money, from its own budget, and that the method of how to spend the 1 billion yen would be discussed further with the Japanese government. On January 21st 2019, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announced that it will cancel the authorization of the establishment of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, effectively scrapping the Korean-Japanese agreement. During this process, the other nation’s concerns was never considered.
This May, Lee Yong-soo revealed a potential scandal around the Korean Council’s handling of donations. The revelation was that when the agreement was made in 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did let Yoon Mee-hyang, the former head of the Korean Council, know about the content of the agreement beforehand. The Korean Council’s criticism of how the Park government did not proceed in a victim-centric manner was debunked, as this proved that the process was indeed victim-centric. Furthermore, to assert that diplomatic negotiations must take place under democratic control is an amateurish idea that has no footing in the realities of actual diplomatic negotiations, which require a high degree of secrecy. On top of that, given how volatile and serious the comfort women issue is, operating on such a “hot potato” issue in a public forum is extremely challenging.
A negotiation where one of the two conflicting nations wins unilaterally is impossible in a diplomatic exchange that is not open warfare. As the former director of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation said, the Park government chose “the achievable next-best alternative” over the “best but impossible desire”.
The Moon government heavily and repeatedly criticized the comfort women agreement made by its predecessor, calling it a deep-rooted evil. However, when it became their turn, it could not do anything to solve the problem for three years. In fact, much progress was lost. Only 16 of the 47 victims are alive today. President Moon boasted that the Korean government would never lose to Japan again. Cho Kuk suddenly and without context screamed out the Jookchang-ga — the “Song of Bamboo Spear” that was popular during the democracy movement against the military regime in the 1980s —, and threatening allegations flew around, asserting that anyone who criticizes the Korean Council is pro-Japan. However, Yoon Mee-hyang, who became a congressperson through her activities in the Korean Council, ended up being charged for 8 suspicions, including embezzlement, breach of trust, and fraud.
The Moon government wasted over three years without solving the comfort women issue. The question must be asked - does the Moon government really have the will to solve the comfort women issue?
JoongAng Ilbo “Public Opinion” (December 28th, 2020) by Hong Sung-kee, Professor of the Inha Law School