There are only 25 South Korean Comfort Women still alive today. Their existence has proven to be an uphill battle between Japan and South Korea regarding a tough history during the Imperial Japanese occupation of Korea during World War II, and a series of diplomatic agreements between the two countries has yet to find a final solution to recognize, honor and care for the elderly women. Recently, South Korea announced plans to scrap a fund opened by the Japanese for former South Korean Comfort Women, and the two countries continue to battle each other aggressively over the resolution of the issue.
The Sad History of South Korean Comfort Women
The Japanese Empire lasted form 1910 until 1945, ending with the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the United States. After the empire was disbanded, each country regained sovereignty to deal with the ruins of war in the wake of the fallen empire.
The first fund set up for former Comfort Women was criticized in South Korea for not being direct compensation form the state. In addition, many critics of South Korea also admit that in all the agreements, the complicity of South Koreans in the sex trade at the time was not addressed. Specifically, Korean brokers called Middlemen recruited young peripheral women using traditional methods such as newspaper advertisements.
Many agreements after the war aimed to give reparations to former South Korean Comfort Women. However, South Korea has routinely blocked the accessibility to the funds, leaving anger and frustration to the former Comfort Women and their descendants.
One of the monumental events that occurred from the outspokenness was an apology by the country of Japan for all of the hurt they had caused during the war. The country donated money from the public and from private collections to aid the women in their elder years in the late 1990’s and again in 2015. In addition to funds collected, several public apologies have been publicly states by various ministers over the past several decades.
The Ongoing Controversy, Explained
Many individuals and groups have criticized the various agreements between the two countries for a slew of reasons. South Korea, for instance, is criticized for making deals with Japan without any input from the former Comfort Women themselves. Civil groups have had their say in the matter, erupting an international controversy by setting up “Comfort Woman” statues all over the world.
Busan in South Korea was home to one of the first comfort woman statues which inaccurately depicted a comfort woman as a young girl. The erection of this statue came as a blow to diplomatic relations, as the bilateral 2015 Comfort Women Agreement barred against it. In 2017, the statue placed outside of the Japanese consulate was accused of violating the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations as well as the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations which both state that a host country has the obligation to prevent “any disturbance of the peace of [the diplomatic mission/consular post] or impairment of its dignity”.
More recently, San Francisco came under scrutiny as their sister city designation with Osaka was severed after decades directly as a result of the city’s new Comfort Woman statue. The interruption of international politics as a direct result of a civic group’s moves run counter to all the hard work and progress the two countries made in the interim.
Seoul-Tokyo Ties Sour
Japanese officials from several different administrations have expressed frustration on what they see as the Seoul’s changing position and efforts to revise legally settled agreements. In 2015, the landmark Comfort Women agreement was signed by Korea and Japan. In it, Japan agreed to once again pay reparations to former comfort women. The deal was meant to settle the long and painful history finally and irreversibly.
International agreements do not automatically terminate at the hands of regime change, despite the hopes of South Korea’s President Moon. Had the country foreseen an issue with the deal when it was being negotiated, they should have terminated it – not made it an internationally binding agreement ratified by the two states.
Why is the issue still being revisited after many attempts to respectfully and diplomatically put it to rest? The responsibility today lies in the hands of the South Korean government. Japan has done its due diligence regarding reparations, apologies and compensation to all those negatively affected by the Imperial rule. In addition, today’s Japan is far more evolved and modernized than the Japan of the past, and harshly judging and criticizing as nation who has come so far in progress economically and in sensitive issues such as women’s rights and human rights should not continue to bind them to the past.
The goodwill of the current Japanese government has done its work regarding the fate of former South Korean comfort women. South Korea holding on to the issue is not only an unfair pawn used in political manipulation, it is disrespectful to the memory of those who lived so valiantly through such a difficult period in world history. It is my hope that the few remaining former comfort women live to see a world where both sides respect and maintain their word. Then, justice will be truly served.