Celebrating the closure of the comfort women issue is premature
Japan’s Prime Minister Abe got a belated Christmas present from South Korea—some might say the exceptional deal of seven decades since the end of WWII—when the Korean government agreed to formally end any further reference to the sexual slavery Japan enforced on the Korean women during WWII. Thus, the book on the suffering of the Korean people in the hands of Japan’s imperial troops during the War and 30 years of brutal occupation before the war can be closed and the two countries can look ahead.
South Korea’s president Park accepted a verbal apology from Abe by telephone with the specific proviso that there would be no formal documentation of the apology in print that would benefit posterity. The apology was accompanied by a one billion yen compensation taken from Japan’s government budget, which because it did not come from private donations, was to pass as an official and formal apology. The disposition of the one billion yen was vague and not specifically designated as compensation to the surviving victims of Japan’s sexual slavery.
Japan did require that the statue commemorating the suffering of Korean comfort women be removed from its present location in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. So, I suppose part of the billion yen could be used to relocate the statue so that Japan need not face daily reminders of their shameful past.
Some quarters in Japan praised Abe for his courage in “breaking” with the past. Other supporters belonging to the right wing of the LDP were incensed that Abe made any sort of concession at all and suggested that only seppuku can expiate Abe’s disgrace.
Promptly the day after the agreement with South Korea was announced, Abe’s wife went to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine to pay her respects to the tablets memorializing the war criminals. She even posted selfies of her visit to make sure her appeasement to the right wing on behalf of her husband did not go unnoticed.
So much for the supposed sincerity of Japan’s apology.
According to various polls, the people of South Korea like Abe even less than they like the North Korea leader, Kim Jong-un. The puzzle then is why President Park so quickly came to terms with Abe. As recently as last November she was not willing to meet Abe much less discuss the conditions that would lead to the agreement. The only logical answer is that she felt heavy pressure from Washington.
Getting South Korea to forgive and forget about the sexual slavery issue might be a diplomatic win for Abe but is an even more important development for Obama. According to his worldview, Obama needed a solid alliance in northeast Asia as part of his pivot to Asia. However, whether the tie between South Korea and Japan can withstand facing China remains to be seen.
Not that China is likely to challenge the link up based on military force. But as Asia Times reported on “China hits India where it hurts,” China builds its international ties with economic inducements. The piece was referring to China’s development with Nepal, “…so as to achieve mutual benefits, win-win results and common development, and elevate the long-lasting and friendly China-Nepal comprehensive cooperative partnership to new levels.”
China’s approach with Nepal is typical of China’s diplomacy with any country—namely, butter in the form of mutually beneficial economic advantages rather than guns. This approach as applied to South Korea has meant bilateral relations of ever-closer economic ties and increasing frequency of cultural and people exchanges.
Two years before South Korea concluded the Free Trade Agreement with China (in 2015), the bilateral trade with China already exceeded the total trade South Korea had with the US and Japan, their No. 2 and 3 partners in trade. With the large volume of trade, it made sense for the two countries to enter into currency swap agreements so that the trade transactions can be settled in their respective local currency and by-pass the need to pay in dollars. In Korea today, the renminbi has become the only currency other than the dollar that is freely convertible into the won.
About 40% of all the foreign students studying in China come from South Korea, more than from any other country. Second only to the “American Dream,” the “China Dream” has become an appealing career option for many young aspiring Koreans that did not go to America to study.
In light of South Korea’s “lopsided” (according to Foreign Affairs) economic dependence with China, the Obama administration should consider whether South Korea would act against its own self-interest and side with Japan on any dispute between Japan and China.
Since Obama “won” the Nobel Peace Prize even before he was sworn into his first term, his foreign policy decisions were on many occasions mistaken because he chose the inferior fork on the road. Deciding to rely on Japan, as an ally to counter China, is one of these.
While most Americans are willing to forgive and forget Japan for its WWII atrocities—in truth, many are unaware of Japan’s dark past—people of Asia are unwilling to let Japan off the hook. Abe’s latest apology was a case in point. When Park announced the settlement, the people in Korea rose up on behalf of the surviving “comfort women” and strenuously objected on the grounds that Abe’s apology lacked sincerity, was deliberately vague and did not treat the victims with respect and dignity.
Japan’s response has been to complain that repeated apology has never been enough. After each apology, the critics find fault and demand another. Japanese officials would ask why Japan couldn’t be treated like Germany and not be subjected to constant badgering for another apology. But the critics’ response has been that unlike Japan, the German’s apology was official and formal and they have always been ready to admit their collective guilt and never attempted to deny, recant or revise their history with the Jews.
After the Abe/Park agreement, the Korean American Forum of California (KAFC) also vigorously objected. One important objection raised by KAFC was that Abe’s apology needed to apply to victims of 11 nations and not just to the women of Korea. Thus, far from putting the history of WWII to bed, the people of Asia and anybody of conscience will not let Japan forget.
For Obama to pick Japan as an ally is to stand on the wrong side of history. It’s an undeniable fact that America has not always taken the principled high road. But to let Japan erase its past in the interest of expediency and perceived geopolitical advantage is to let the world know that the US supports and condones heinous acts against humanity and could care less about the feelings of the people in Asia.
Obama has encouraged Abe to re-interpret Japan’s constitution and take on a more militarily aggressive stance. But surely a nation that will deny its past can’t be trusted to behave with honor in the future. Let’s hope Obama and the American people won’t have to rue the day Japan was encouraged to take up their sword again.
Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, the Pacific Council for International Policy and a director of New America Media.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.