On Tuesday, the South Korean government wrapped up a months-long process of reviewing a landmark 2015 agreement with Japan over the “comfort women” issue. In the agreement, Japan apologized for the sexual enslavement of Korean women in military brothels before and during World War II. It also offered for the first time government money to support surviving victims through a foundation run by the Korean government. Both sides pledged to stop criticizing each other on the comfort women issue. They pronounced the deal a “final and irreversible resolution” to the issue.
However, the deal quickly faced backlash in South Korea and was further delegitimized when President Park Geun-hye was impeached last year. Although the left and the right rarely agree in South Korea, Moon Jae-in and all other main candidates to replace Park proposed in some form or another to review the agreement and the negotiations behind it.
When Seoul announced Tuesday that it would not ask to renegotiate the 2015 deal, it ended months of uncertainty about the agreement’s fate while also answering domestic criticism of the deal.
The review and its outcome must be understood in the context of the domestic political moment in South Korea. Editorials in South Korean newspapers across the political spectrum described the review process and the decision to uphold the deal as inevitable. The process was important for healing, both for the few surviving victims and more broadly for a polity still recovering from Park’s presidency and impeachment.
What was announced this week?
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha explained Tuesday that Seoul would uphold the 2015 deal because it was a formal agreement between two countries. But President Moon Jae-in called the deal “defective” just last week. Kang added that the government would set aside 1 billion yen — the same sum provided by the Japanese government under the 2015 agreement. At a news conference Wednesday, Moon also urged Japan to “accept the truth and apologize with a sincere heart.”
The Japanese government quickly issued a protest, declaring it “totally unacceptable” for South Korea to demand further measures from Japan. Calls for a deeper apology made it seem like Seoul was moving the goal posts. Tokyo also questioned what Seoul would do with the matching funds. Tokyo has maintained that it would not budge — not “even by a millimeter” — on the deal. Japanese officials reiterated this week that the deal was “final and irreversible.”
A “final and irreversible” deal?
The 2015 agreement has been at least partly implemented. About half of the 1 billion yen (almost $9 million) from Tokyo has been spent, including payments to 34 of the 47 surviving sex slaves. Only 31 women are still alive today.
But the agreement was purely verbal and faced resistance in South Korea from the start. Residents were especially critical of their government’s acceptance of Japanese concerns about a statue of a young girl set up by civic groups as a symbol of the movement to address wartime sexual slavery. More than two-thirds of South Koreans opposed relocating the statue. Japan’s fixation on the statue arguably increased its significance — dozens of similar statues have been erected throughout South Korea and around the world.
Moreover, three-quarters of South Koreans polled last summer thought the issue was unresolved. Some 53 percent of Japanese respondents agreed.
The government task force’s recent report mainly faulted the process leading to the agreement, noting that negotiations took place in secret and did not include the voices of surviving victims. While Tokyo chafed at the task force’s disclosure of documents related to the negotiations, nearly 60 percent of South Koreans polled before their release already viewed the agreement as “wrong.”
The domestic significance of reviewing the deal
By upholding the deal, the Moon government signaled the main purpose of the review: to seek procedural justice for the surviving victims. Studies in social psychology agree the perceived fairness of the process is often more important than outcomes. Recognizing this, Moon recently invited survivors to the Blue House and formally apologized for his predecessor’s approach to the negotiations with Japan.
More broadly, the review is part of an ongoing struggle in South Korea’s society to restore transparency and democratic procedures after Park Geun-hye’s presidency. Moon’s administration has reviewed many of her decisions. Park and key aides also remain on trial for corruption, abuses of power and other charges.
Although the comfort women agreement was concluded a year before the peak of weekly protests calling for Park’s impeachment, her decision to exclude victims from negotiations in 2015 was emblematic of her perceived disregard for democratic openness generally. This helps explain why the Moon administration has reached out repeatedly to the survivors and focused on the government’s responsibility in the review process.
What’s at stake?
Moon’s government is trying to strike a balance between regional security and promoting reform and transparency at home. On one hand, this deal had to be reviewed, like many other decisions of the truncated and delegitimized previous administration. On the other hand, Seoul must cooperate with Tokyo to handle the North Korean threat — as well as two unpredictable leaders in Washington and Pyongyang. North Korea has a history of exploiting tensions among the United States and its closest allies in the region.
The Moon administration has worked to separate disputes over history from coordination with Japan on North Korea and other issues. Two-thirds of South Koreans recently polled support this approach. In other words, the majority of them don’t demand that the comfort women issue be resolved first.
The review of the 2015 deal was most of all about domestic politics in South Korea. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently reiterated that South Korea is Japan’s “most important neighbor, which shares strategic interests.” He could now act on his calls for a “future-oriented” relationship by agreeing to attend the upcoming PyeongChang Olympics and set a date for a bilateral summit with Moon. Despite recent cracks, the building blocks for improved South Korea-Japan relations remain in place.
Celeste Arrington is an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a fellow in the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University in 2017-18.