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Analysis: Japan, ROK take one step toward final solution to comfort women issue

By Kentaro Nakajima, Seoul Bureau


The Japan-ROK agreement signed late last year has finally moved one step toward implementation with the establishment of the “Reconciliation and Healing Foundation” on July 28. With persistent opposition to the agreement in the ROK, the key issue now is whether the Park Geun-hye administration, which has shown strong determination to implement the agreement, will be able to achieve full implementation before the end of its term of office.


In the negotiations for last December’s agreement, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave strict instructions on including the expression that the agreement would be a “final and irreversible settlement” of the issue because the ROK had a history of going back on past agreements.


As a matter of fact, understanding of the bilateral agreement has hardly deepened in the ROK.


On the morning of July 28, around 10 students stormed into the room where the foundation chairperson was to hold her news conference.


An opinion poll conducted by Japan’s Genron NPO in June and July indicated that only 28% of South Korean respondents were positive about the bilateral accord. The main reason preventing the deepening of public understanding is the strong influence of the citizens’ group “Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan [Teitaikyo].” In most cases, former comfort women who appear in public are supported by the Teitaikyo. A foundation director pointed out that “the South Koreans tend to think that what this group is saying reflects the former comfort women’s wishes.”


However, this is not true in reality. Only 40 out of the 238 former comfort women certified by the ROK government are still alive. In May, the foundation’s chairperson, Kim Tae Hyeon, and ROK government officials met with 37 of them — those close to the Teitaikyo refused to meet with them — after she was named the chair of the preparatory committee for the foundation. As a result, nearly 30 former comfort women showed appreciation for the establishment of the foundation and were willing to accept “consolation money.” A foundation official expressed the hope that “if the former comfort women supporting the agreement come forward, there will be wider public understanding.”


ROK government officials are now talking about an “exit strategy” of removing the comfort women statue in front of the Japanese Embassy after the foundation’s activities gain public support. The ROK government has asked the Japanese government not to link the removal of the statue to Japan’s payment of 1 billion yen in bilateral talks, stating: “Once the fact that most former comfort women welcome the bilateral agreement becomes widely accepted in the country, the conditions will be ripe for persuading the Teitaikyo.”


The Japanese government wants to set the course for the removal of the statue before President Park’s term ends in February 2018. If the comfort women issue becomes a point of contention in the presidential election in December 2017, it will be difficult for the Park administration, which seems “determined to implement the agreement” according to a source on Japan-ROK relations, to work toward removing the statue.


A Japanese government official pointed out the dilemma it faces: “Giving too much prominence to the issue of the statue will only provoke ROK public opinion but the ROK side will not take action unless pressure is applied.” (Slightly abridged)

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