Posted : 2016-01-05 16:55
Updated : 2016-01-07 15:13

A deal that shouldn't be

By Choi Sung-jin
Senior writer

Despite ― or rather because of ― the Dec. 28 agreement between Seoul and Tokyo on the "comfort women" issue, victims and their supporters will conduct a far larger, and angrier, weekly protest meeting here Wednesday.

That alone should be sufficient to revisit ― and revoke ― the hurriedly sealed, half-baked settlement.

It was President Park Geun-hye who had vowed not to reach an accord unless victims and the public accept it. Apparently most, if not all, of the 46 former comfort women alive and a majority of Koreans oppose it, as polls show. President Park has reneged on countless pledges she has made, but this should not be the case this time.

Yes, the agreement seems to have gone one or two steps ahead of the previous accords: Japan's prime minister acknowledged the Imperial Army's involvement in running military brothels by coercing and coaxing an estimated 200,000 girls and women, mostly from Korea, into sexual slavery, and expressed remorse and an apology for that. In addition, Japan will put some $8.1 million, from the government budget, into a fund to be administered by Korea.

So the two key conditions ― direct apology and compensation ― have been met for the two nations to leave the past behind and move forward, say Japanese officials and even some foreigners sympathetic to Tokyo. If Korea demands more, it will amount to little more than moving the goalposts, yet again, they argue.

I can hardly disagree more.

For an international accord to carry any significance and ensure practicability, the parties involved should not just stick to its phrases but respect the spirit within it. Of this the Japanese leaders have displayed agonizingly little. The first thing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly did after reaching the agreement was reaffirm the "final and irreversible" settlement of the issue. More than a week later, Abe's top diplomat was still bent on making the removal of the statue symbolizing the comfort women in front of the Japanese embassy an established fact.

So, behind the "tatemae" (the Japanese word for external display) of mea culpa, the "honne" (inner feeling) of these officials and many other right-wing nationalists was saying, "Have our words plus some money, and don't come again. There should be no more apologies whatsoever, or even discussion of it." Abe took extra care to make all moves in indirect ways ― the apology was conveyed by his foreign minister and through calls to President Park, not the victims. Even the compensation fund is not in Japan's name but Korea's.

All this shows why the Park administration should stop urging Tokyo to carry out the agreement as it is now but start it all over. No grave war crimes, let alone the largest trafficking of women, including minors, in history, and most brutal (what could be crueler for women than repeated acts of sex against their will?) abuses of human rights, should be dealt with in this way. The core truth of the comfort women problem is the Japanese state's responsibility for coercing numerous women into sexual servitude. For Tokyo to be free from that liability, it must acknowledge facts, apologize, compensate, ascertain truth, set up memorials for historical education and punish those responsible.

Japan has done few of these, at least not in the way victims can accept and most neutral and conscionable academics recognize as conforming to common legal sense established internationally.

Skeptics ― including one Korean professor educated in Japan ― say some became comfort women on their own, for money and/or out of misperceived patriotism. They may be right or wrong. Yet such exceptions do not weaken the need to properly deal with this issue and only explains why the two governments should restart from the ground up. Cheong Wa Dae says rejection of the agreement means returning to 25 years ago, when the comfort women first came forward, and the compromise deal is the best they can give to these aged victims before they die.

Again, cancellation of the accord is exactly what these aged women want, who think that a bad deal is worse than no deal. And it would matter little whether they are in this world or in the other if a genuine solution ― unequivocal acknowledgment of the state's responsibility, a direct apology from the prime minister to whoever may be the last surviving comfort woman, and appropriate compensation in both its nature and amount ― fully restores their dignity as human beings.

In many ways, the ongoing fiasco was of President Park's own making by unnecessarily setting the deadline, saying the two nations can ill afford to waste anymore time for restoring friendly ties to cope jointly with threats from the communists, China and North Korea. It was what her father, former President Park Chung-hee, said in 1965 when he hurriedly wrapped up normalization talks to get $800 million from Japan, not as compensation but as consolation or even congratulation, required for demonstrating economic changes to justify his illegitimate snatch of political power through a coup. Then, like now, U.S. coercion played a crucial role, too.

Korea is not what it was 51 years ago, and its two allies ― Japan and the U.S. ― should not be, either, in settling this last historical and humanitarian homework of World War II left undone.

President Park may try to visit the remaining comfort women and persuade them to accept the deal as the last resort. She must not do this, though, she must tell her Japanese counterpart to do what he should do.

Choi Sung-jin is The Korea Times' senior writer. He can be reached at

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