(Mainichi: January 6, 2016 – p. 10)
By Koichi Yonemura, Seoul Bureau
The Japan-ROK agreement on the comfort women issue reached on Dec. 28 was epoch-making in that it effectively settled an issue that has evoked debate and criticism, not only in both countries, but also in the international community, for over 20 years. It was the result of a bold decision on the part of both governments. For this very reason, I have to say that certain things could have been done a bit differently.
The Japanese government went as far as stating that Japan is “painfully aware of its responsibilities.” The ROK government also showed appreciation for efforts made by Japan so far. Both sides affirmed that this would be a “final and irreversible resolution.” Even with regard to Japan’s problem with the girl statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, the ROK side agreed to “strive to solve this issue.” This was an unexpectedly in-depth agreement. The expression of shock on the face of commentators appearing on South Korean TV after the live relay of the joint news conference betrayed this fact.
However, watching ROK Second Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul giving a briefing on the agreement at the comfort women facility House of Nanum outside Seoul on Dec. 29, I could not help being dismayed. In short, the former comfort women reacted strongly because the agreement was reached without even consulting them, a party directly involved in this issue.
For sure, the ROK Foreign Ministry was preoccupied with negotiating with Japan up to the last minute and might not have had the time and energy. Yet, I still think it was insensitive to merely give a briefing on the agreement without even making an effort to show some extent of the comfort women’s involvement in the decision-making. This was a major factor that made the agreement unacceptable to the former comfort women and divided public opinion in South Korean society.
Another issue is there has been no visual image that symbolized the agreement. This is unfortunate in two ways. First, the former comfort women could not truly feel that the Japanese government had apologized to them.
In another sense, there was a problem with Japan’s image strategy. For present day Japanese, the comfort women issue is a disgrace not really because of what happened more than 70 years ago, but rather because of Japan’s image of not apologizing and not showing any remorse. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to offer another explicit apology was based on a strategic judgment made in order to eliminate such an image in the international community. If so, the more a visual symbol of apology would be important.
Nevertheless, I believe the recent agreement is commendable. The handling of the comfort women issue, which has become a diplomatic football, directly impacts the stability of the Japan-ROK relationship. A large number of people in both countries have become interested parties. Therefore, even if the main players are not appeased right away, it does not mean that the agreement is meaningless.
With this agreement, the comfort women issues will at least be “shelved” as a diplomatic issue between the two countries for some time. Furthermore, one factor behind the agreement was both governments had been inconvenienced by the deterioration of bilateral relations in the past three years or so. It is now unlikely that the comfort women issue will prevent the holding of summit meetings even after a change of administration.
This agreement came about based on a decision by the Abe administration, which takes a conservative stance on the history issues. We must put an end to the vicious cycle of the conservatives in Japan reacting strongly to the Japanese government’s apology and remorse for the comfort women issue further aggravating criticisms in the ROK. Toward this end, it is important that the Japanese government stands by this agreement no matter how the ROK side responds from now on. I think this will also be a strategy in Japan’s national interest. (Abridged)