On Tuesday, South Korea’s government fielded Japanese complaints that it has not been following through on terms reached between the two countries concerning Korean comfort women. Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers discussed their differences around the 2015 deal. The Tokyo meeting represented the first time Kang Kyung-wha, the South Korean minister, has visited Japan in her official capacity.
Moon Jae-in, President of South Korea, had been making more news for his attention to North Korea, and the threat posed to the entire region by its growing nuclear capability. But attention to the comfort women testimonies actually predates even concern about North Korean belligerence. Moon has been critical of the South Korean comfort women deal, which had been accepted by his predecessor in office.
Comfort women testimonies are part of the legacy of Japanese aggression in the 1930s and 1940s, which ultimately touched every nation in the Pacific Rim. That includes China, which has not forgotten the Rape of Nanking and other atrocities. This history loomed over Minister Kang’s Tuesday meeting with Taro Kono, the Japanese foreign minister.
Only last week, President Moon traveled to Beijing, where he did not simply push for a more diplomatic approach toward North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, but specifically referenced Japan’s war crimes as something endured by China and Korea alike. Moon’s use of this shared history to cultivate deeper ties between the two nations was greeted with some alarm by the Japanese.
Much of Kang’s work during her visit, concluding Wednesday, was precisely meant to calm Japanese concerns that Moon might be trying to lay the groundwork for a new Sino-Korean partnership meant to cut out Tokyo.
The ministers reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to unity in the face of North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons program. But the two nations have a painful history to overcome, particularly the 1910-1945 Japanese conquest and colonization of Korea and the Korean comfort women tragedy of that era.
That history dogged relations between the two Asian powers for decades as the comfort women stories kept old wartime wounds fresh. The previous South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, hoped the 2015 deal would help heal those wounds, but his eventual impeachment only hurt the deal’s legitimacy.
According to the deal, Japan accepted the “involvement” of its military, which established brothels in which captive comfort women were held for soldiers’ sexual exploitation. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, expressed his regrets and set up a foundation to benefit survivors among South Korean comfort women. Playing its agreed-upon part, the Park Government stated that the entire comfort women episode had now been “finally and irreversibly” settled.
It was hoped that this would remove a thorny issue that had long hindered the two countries’ cooperation, but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, the deal faced strong resistance from a South Korean republic that was less easily mollified than the soon-to-depart President Park.
The agreement is now under review by a Foreign Ministry expert panel set up by the new President. On December 27, the experts will publish the results of this review, which will guide Moon’s decision to retain the deal, insist upon changes, or cancel South Korean acceptance altogether.
Kono represented the official Tokyo view that the deal should stand as agreed, while Kang informed Kono about Seoul’s reevaluation process. The ministers also discussed future Presidential visits and groundwork for a three-nation China/Japan/South Korean summit, to be hosted by Japan.
Kono expressed Tokyo’s preference for a January summit. The Park Government had hosted the previous summit in 2015. Should all parties fail to agree on a date, the foreign ministers discussed options, including a meeting with President Abe during February’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.