05
Jan
16

What is the point of the Japan-South Korea ‘comfort women’ deal?

The early English twitter and media coverage of the announcement that Japan-South Korea had brokered a deal to resolve the issue of reparations for South Korean ‘comfort women’ was couched in mostly positive language with some journalists expressing the hope that, this time, the apology would be sufficient to end the issue once and for all. Yet, even a basic knowledge of the issue and a small amount of common sense should be enough to see that this deal is as bad, if not worse, than the previous failed apology attempts.

A deal only covering South Korean victims reeks of realpolitik. Given Japan and South Korea’s economic relationship and the strength of the comfort women movement in South Korea it is not surprising that this deal was wrangled with South Korea and not Indonesia, Taiwan, or the Philippines, etc.

But even putting that aside, here are three obvious reasons why this deal is fatally flawed:

  1. The women, their families or representatives weren’t at the negotiating table

The picture attached to most of the stories gave us the first clue that the deal was bogus. Two Asian men shaking hands standing in front of their respective national flags is not a picture that encapsulates the story of an historic acceptance of an apology to female victims of wartime sexual slavery.

(picture source)

As the picture does suggest, none of the women, families or representative organizations were included, consulted or involved in the discussions and negotiations for agreeing the deal. Nor were the women alerted or briefed about the deal prior to it being made public. This is even more evident in the fact that the deal fails to include key asks that the ‘comfort women’ have been calling for and is as equivocal as previous apologies that failed to gain the acceptance of the victims, their families or representatives.

  1. It’s a deal, not an apology

Rather than an unequivocal apology and reparations, this agreement is very much a political deal – South Korea removes the statue across from the embassy and Japan will pay out 1 billion yen of government funds and repeat the same carefully worded apology that avoids acknowledgement of legal responsibility. The deal is already coming under threat as South Korea seeks to take advantage of the vague wording in the deal to avoid moving the statue.

As for the money, it already looks like the proposed Fund is in trouble. A few years ago, two South Korean former ‘comfort women’ set up their own fund, the Butterfly Fund, which works to provide support for victims of wartime sexual violence in conflict areas around the world. This genesis of this fund was the position taken by these two women that the apology counts for more than the money. They said that, if the Japanese government ever paid reparations, they would use that money to support other victims of sexual violence in conflict. In the absence of any apology or financial compensation from the Japanese government, the women set up the fund from private donations. Hankyoreh reports that the Korean Council for Women Drafted into Military Sexual Slavery by Japan (Korean Council) is refusing to engage with the proposed fund which will effectively make it impossible for the new fund to get established.

  1. Victims accept an apology, not governments.

States have the right to apply for reparations on behalf of survivors. However it seems inconceivable in this day and age that a government would apply for reparations without including, consulting and getting the explicit support of the women themselves to accept the agreement. This is especially true when the victims, their families and representative organization are so well organized with the ability to garner public support to back up their position. As we already saw, the Wednesday demonstration following the agreement attracted much larger numbers than usual and the group enjoys widespread public support in opposing the removal of the statue. The failure to involve the victims and gain their support to publicly accept the apology offered by the Japanese government is what will ultimately doom this agreement like all the ones before it.

The victims, their families and representative have made it very clear over the years what they believe would constitute an acceptable reparations package. Given that both the Japanese and South Korean government would have already known that this deal would be unacceptable to the women and that the public support in Korea would inevitably support the women, it is unclear what both sides hope to achieve by this endeavor.

 

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