How will Japan and South Korea Resolve the Comfort Women Issue?


History indicates that sexual slavery is a common occurrence in human history. Just before and during the World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army is accused of turning some Korean women and girls into sex slaves, comfort women. The term “comfort women” is translational of the Japanese word “ianfu” which is a polite term for a woman prostitute. Historians suggest that thousands of women could have been involved in the sexual slavery. While some historians quote a figure as low as 20 thousand, some indicate that as many as 400 thousand women could have been forced into the sexual slavery.

Several years after the World War II, the comfort women issue remains unresolved between South Korea and Japan. However, the two countries that enjoy a cordial working relationship have made efforts towards finding an amicable solution to the issue. Two years ago, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his South Korean counterpart, Yun Byung-se, reached an agreement that would see Japan contribute $9 million in support of former comfort women who are still alive. Accompanying the pledge was an admission by Kishida that the Japanese Imperial Army might have been involved in numerous atrocities directed at comfort women as reflected by the comfort women stories. Kishida’s sentiments echo those of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who expressed his “most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences.”On his part, Yun Byung-se promised to ensure that the comfort women statue in front of the Japanse embassy in South Korea’s capital was removed.

However, the December 28, 2015, agreement remains unimplemented. Apparently, the deal does not resonate well with the citizens of both countries. While some Japanese have staged protests against the joint agreement, a Gallup poll indicates that over 50 percent of South Koreans do not vouch for the agreement. A further 66 percent are against the removal of the comfort women statue from the vicinity of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

Things got more complicated for the bilateral agreement when Saenuri Party lost its legislative majority in April 2014. The party, which President Park Geun-hye belongs, is at the forefront of advocating for the implementation of the agreement. The Minjoo Party and the Peoples’ Party, the largest and the second largest opposition parties in South Korea respectively, have publicly demonstrated their distaste for the agreement. The opposition parties coupled with Korean civil society (such as Lawyers for a Democratic Society) form a formidable force against the agreement. Although the South Korean citizens are against the agreement, the country hopes to resolve the issue to maintain the cordial relationship with Japan that is currently in place and that the South Korean comfort women issue is threatening to undermine.

Another setback that the agreement has faced is related to Abe’s speech in the Upper House of the Japanese Diet. The statement suggested that Japan reached an agreement with South Korea not because it was convinced that its soldiers were involved in sex slavery or war crimes but because Japan values a good working relationship with South Korea. In fact, Abe’s sentiments are shared by senior members of his government who argue that there is no evidence to prove the comfort women testimonies.

Japan believes that the comfort women statues (which are becoming popular across the world) are damaging to the “soft power” image it seeks to portray. China and Philippines are some of the Asian countries that have statues in honor of comfort women. Outside Asia, the U.S has several memorials in honor of comfort women. Also, several not-for-profit organizations (such as Washington Coalition for Comfort Women Issues) and politicians including Mike Honda are keen about comfort women getting justice.