TOKYO — Just days after the Japanese and South Korean governments announced a surprise agreement to resolve a decades-old dispute over wartime sex slaves, opposition on both sides is threatening to derail it.
In Tokyo, officials said the $8.3 million that Japan agreed to put into a fund for the remaining 46 South Korean “comfort women,” who were forced into sexual servitude during World War II, will not be paid until a statue that commemorates the women is removed from outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Meanwhile, in Seoul, supporters of the women said they will put up other statues if the one outside the embassy is removed, and a South Korean court said it will hear a claim from 10 women for damages from Japan.
“It’s remarkable how quickly a ‘final and irreversible’ agreement seems to be crumbling from both ends,” said John Delury, an international-relations expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Although the numbers are highly contentious, independent historians have concluded that as many as 200,000 women and girls — from occupied countries, including Korea, China, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations — were coerced by Japan’s Imperial Army to work as sex slaves during the war.
Although Japan officially apologized and set up a fund for the surviving women in the mid-1990s, South Koreans have been incensed by comments made by associates of Shinzo Abe, who returned as Japan’s prime minister three years ago. They have played down the numbers and suggested that the women were simply prostitutes, enraging South Koreans, many of whom believe Japan has not properly atoned for its colonial actions.
The resulting tensions sent relations between Japan and South Korea, two key U.S. allies in Asia, plunging to new depths.
But in an unexpected development Monday, the foreign ministers of the two countries announced a deal under which Japan would pay into a fund for the surviving South Korean “comfort women” and South Korea would try to persuade civil groups to remove the bronze statue that is in front of the embassy. It is a focal point for anti-Japan protests held outside the embassy most Wednesdays. Under the deal, both sides also agreed to refrain from criticizing each other publicly.
Washington has welcomed the deal as a harbinger of better relations between its allies, but the deal quickly proved controversial here.
A Japanese official said that the funds were contingent on removal of the statue and that the South Korean government understood that, the Kyodo news agency reported.
“If it is true that Abe plans to make the donation contingent on removing the statue, this deal looks dead on arrival,” Delury said.
South Korean officials have said that they will ask the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan, the civil group that installed the statue, to remove it but have said that this was a pledge rather than a condition of the deal. Announcing the deal on Monday, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said the government “acknowledges” Japan’s concerns and would “strive to solve this issue.”
At a rally Wednesday, the group said it would erect more statues like the one in front of the embassy. “Cancel the humiliating agreement!” some demonstrators chanted, Yonhap News Agency reported, adding that they were waving banners that read, “Say no to relocation of the statue!” They opposed the deal partly because it does not address the issue of Japan’s legal responsibility.
Separately, the Seoul Central District Court said it will hear a suit brought by 10 former “comfort women” seeking damages of $85,000 each.
In Japan, Abe’s conservative government has been sharply criticized. Since the prime minister posted a photo on Facebook of himself toasting the year with his advisers, more than 2,500 people have commented, many denigrating the agreement.
“Mr. Abe, your handling of South Korea this time is a complete error of judgement,” said Nobuhide Shigemoto in one of the top comments on the post. “It’s rather removed from the people’s will. I feel really sorry because [your government] has been doing so well. It’s not too late even now.” Others complained that the agreement turned their grandfathers into sex offenders.
In South Korea, the victims and their supporters have been sharply critical, but the general public seems more willing to accept the deal. Almost 51 percent of the respondents in a Realmeter poll said they disapproved of the agreement, while 43 percent supported it.