A South Korean government-appointed panel has concluded that a “final and irreversible” deal made with Japan in 2015 to compensate Korean women forced into sexual slavery during World War II fails to meet the needs of victims. The investigation determined that the decades-long dispute regarding what the Japanese euphemistically termed “comfort women” could not be “fundamentally resolved” without taking the views of the surviving women into account. The panel’s findings mean that the agreement, which was reached between Japan and South Korea’s previous government, may now be revised or scrapped altogether.
Furthermore, South Korea’s Foreign Minister, Kang Kyung-wha, apologized for the controversial deal during a news conference following the release of the panel’s findings and stated that the agreement in its current form “failed to sufficiently reflect a victim-oriented approach, which is the universal standard in resolving human rights issues.” Meanwhile, Japan’s Foreign Minister, Taro Kono, stated that “if [South Korea] tries to revise the agreement that is already being implemented, that would make Japan’s ties with South Korea unmanageable and it would be unacceptable,” thus indicating that any amendment to the 2015 settlement may complicate relations.
While the deal was indeed hailed by two governments as being a “final and irreversible” settlement on the issue of “comfort women” at the time the agreement was reached, the move was still widely disliked in South Korea. It dictated that Japan was, in its part, to express responsibility for its actions during World War II, make a new apology to the so-called “comfort women,” and establish a 1 billion yen ($8.8 million USD) fund to assist in the provision of old-age care for the victims. In return, South Korea was to cease its criticism of Japan on the issue. Where most critics saw fault in the agreement was that it ignored the women’s push to make Japan take “legal” responsibility for its actions and to provide official reparations.
Moreover, the two countries share a bitter history stemming from Japan’s colonization of South Korea from 1910 until its 1945 defeat in World War II, with the legacy of sexual slavery being one of the most persistent disputes preventing reconciliation. Historians estimate that up to 200,000 women were lured or coerced to work in military brothels for Japanese soldiers from as early as 1930 until 1945. According to the New York Times, those Korean women that managed to survive the ordeal lived largely in silence as a result of the stigma and many never married. Altogether, 238 South Korean women have identified themselves and spoken about their experiences since the early 1990s, with 36 still alive today.
The President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, now faces a political and diplomatic quagmire. Dissatisfaction with the deal has led his progressive constituents to insist on significant revision or a termination of the agreement. However, just as the previous South Korean government confronted, there is pressure from the United States, as well as within the country to improve relations with Japan. Such calls have become only more urgent in the context of ongoing international efforts to reign in the threat of North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile programs. Thus, these tensions will need to be confronted as the government proceeds to review the results of the panel and translate it into policy.