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South Korea’s Comfort Women

By Ichiro Suzuki On January 8, a South Korean court ordered the Japanese government to pay damages to a group of former "comfort women" who suffered under Japan’s military brothel system before and during World War II. It is the first such court ruling in South Korea.

The Japanese Imperial Army ran brothels in Korea until the end of WWII. Women who were forced to sell sex there have been a thorny issue in the bilateral relations of the two key U.S. allies in East Asia where there are enough sources of instability in China and North Korea. In 2015 the Obama White House pressured PM Shinzo Abe and President Park Geun-hye to improve their relations in the face of growing threats from the People’s Republic. On December 28, 2015, the two countries reached an agreement on this issue that was considered historic. The solution was supposed to be final and irrevocable.

South Korea's grievance is well documented internationally. From Japan's perspective, the issue was already legally resolved in the 1965 treaty that normalized the bilateral relationship, in which Japan paid South Korea $300 million in reparations and $200 million low interest rate loans at a time when South Korea’s national budget was $350 million. In addition, Japan’s private sector offered $300 million low interest rate loans. Japan argues that the reparations included compensations to comfort women. While South Korean President Park Chung-hee understood this, he did not distribute anything to those women, and instead spent everything in infrastructure development. Such investments laid a foundation for the country’s economic miracle in the 1970s and 1980s. Japan apologized more than a few times since then, but this issue keeps coming up over and over again. Almost every South Korean president brings up an anti-Japan posture as a policy when his/ her approval ratings begin to fall. It leads to votes. That the goal post keeps moving, is how this issue is perceived in Japan. Under President Obama’s watch (and under Vice President Biden’s watch, too), the goal post was hopefully fixed for good, at last.

At the end of 1995 the Japanese government agreed to contribute a billion yen ($8.3 million) to a fund established by the two governments. Payments were to be made out of the fund to former comfort women for their suffering and medical costs. Abe expressed “sincere apologies and remorse” for their suffering. Only Abe, the nationalist, was able to say sorry. The apology predictably infuriated the ultra-conservative wing of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) but he had little problem reining in the right wingers, with his vast political capital at that time. More liberal politicians would not have survived such a storm. President Park of South Korea was a daughter of a former Japanese Imperial Army officer who later became a dictator as President, and then normalized relationship with Japan in 1965. With this background, Ms. Park probably had to be tough on Japan.

For years, Japan’s left-leaning newspaper Asahi Shimbun ran a fierce campaign on the plight of comfort women, adding fuel to the fire. The LDP’s conservative politicians kept shouting back at the Asahi that parts of the stories on the newspaper were untrue. Eventually, the Asahi admitted that they fabricated a part that young Korean women were taken by the Japanese Imperial Army to brothels totally against their will. While the Asahi took back the article in 2015, they did so only in Japanese, leaving English articles uncorrected. There is a chance that comfort women most likely went to the Army-run brothels by some sort of consent, at least technically. Some might have been prostitutes, but the majority of them was probably from families that were so dirt poor that they had to help their fathers earning cash, and it was the only way for them to do so in Korea at that time. A sad story anyway.

Just about the time when it looked the issue had seen a final and irrevocable solution at last, the goal post was moved yet again, perhaps unsurprisingly. In March 2017, President Park was arrested and formally charged with abuse of power, bribery, coercion and leaking government secrets. She was later impeached and removed. New President Moon Jae-in rose to the helm in May 2017, and then chose to unilaterally scrap an international agreement made by his predecessor, since some former comfort women were not satisfied with it. The thorny issue was thrown back into wilderness where it drifted for decades. About the author: Mr. Suzuki is a retired banking executive based in Tokyo, Japan. Ref: Saying sorry for sex slavery


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