An Uncomfortable Past


  Although South Korean president Park Geun-Hye was elected into office as a conservative candidate, she has been taking radical steps in diplomacy. Since 1992, when South Korea established official diplomatic relations with China, all newly inaugurated presidents have visited the United States, Japan, and China in that order; however, President Park flatly ignored this tradition, visiting the U.S. for her first trip abroad, but skipping Japan in favor of China. She so far has met with Chinese President Xi Jinping a total of six times while completely snubbing Japan.

Pundits list South Korea’s close economic ties with China and need for China’s cooperation in dealing with North Korea as possible reasons for this unprecedented closeness. But another factor unrelated to the economy or security is likely prompting this intimacy—namely, the two countries’ strong sense of solidarity as victims of Japanese imperialism.

Beginning in 2013, the tension between South Korea and Japan over unresolved historical controversies has risen, culminating in the suspension of dialogue between the highest-level leaders. Ezra Vogel, a Harvard scholar of the region characterized Korea-Japan relations as at their worst since the end of World War II. He pinpointed the “comfort women” issue as the core of the problem. The term “comfort women” refers to women, mostly Koreans, who worked in warfront brothels under duress and deception by Japanese military during World War II. The current Japanese government disputes this account.

China comfort women_edited-1 (1)


China is using this dispute to its own advantage, going on a charm offensive by portraying itself as a similar victim of Japan’s war crimes and supporting Koreans’ anger towards the Japanese government’s revisionist attitude. The most vivid illustration of China’s strategy is the speech Chinese president Xi Jinping delivered at Seoul National University during his visit to South Korea in July 2014, where he reminded the audience that both China and South Korea are victims of “barbarous wars of aggression” perpetrated by “Japanese militarists,” and that the two countries had “shared suffering and helped each other with sweat and blood.”

The series of meetings held between Xi and Park under this air of sympathy over historical issues was enough to suggest the possibility that “history alliance”—an alliance based on a shared sense of historical character—is being formed between China and South Korea. While other historical controversies could also play a role in dividing Japan and Korea, as Vogel pointed out, the major trigger seems to be the “comfort women” issue.

“Comfort women” is a euphemism used to refer to women forced to serve as sexual slaves for Japanese soldiers on as early as the 1930s. Although the precise number is unclear, historians estimate up to 200,000 comfort women were active throughout the war period, with 80-90 percent of them Korean.

Although the existence of this horrendous wartime practice had been generally kept quiet for about a half century after the war, the silence began breaking down in the 1990s. A milestone testimony by Kim Hak-Sun in 1991 promoted the issue to the international stage, giving “momentum leading to [many] investigations by historians, scholars, the Korean government, or women’s groups in the civil sector” on the issue, according to historian Bang-Soon L. Yoon.

Like the Abe administration, past Japanese governments were reluctant to acknowledge responsibility in forcing these women to work in military brothels; however, in 1993, “confronted with overwhelming evidence,” Japan officially apologized for these “comfort stations.” In August 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono Yohei made the following remark:

“The then Japanese military was, directly or indirectly, involved in the establishment and management of the comfort stations and the transfer of comfort women [...] The Government study has revealed that in many cases they were recruited against their will, through coaxing, coercion, etc.”

Even an apology from the top government spokesperson, however, failed to bring about reconciliation. The main problem is that different Japanese governments led by different prime ministers hold radically different views on the issue.

One of the most prominent revisionists of the comfort women issue is none other than Prime Minister Abe Shinzo. During his first premiership in March 2007, he angered his East Asian neighbors by making a Cabinet decision stating that “there is no evidence to prove there was coercion” of comfort women. Last September, during his campaign for the LDP’s presidential position, Abe also promised party members that the Kono statement would be reviewed.

Unsurprisingly then, as soon as he was reinstituted to the premiership in December 2012, the controversy was rekindled. On December 27, 2012, only a day after Abe took office, Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide was caught equivocating over a reporter’s question as to whether Abe would uphold the Kono Statement, saying, “Rather than being about whether we follow the [Kono] statement or not .... Our basic understanding is that it is desirable for studies by academics and historians, both Japanese and foreign, to be considered.” In short, it seems the Cabinet’s view that the comfort women controversy is still an open-ended one, to the dismay of Koreans.

Similar attempts at downplaying the atrocity of the comfort women issue continued. On May 27, 2013, in a press conference, Suga made it clear that the Abe administration still intended to “respect” the Cabinet decision that declared there was no documentary evidence for forced recruitment of comfort women. In June 2014, a Japanese governmental panel conducted a study on the origin of the Kono Statement in an attempt to suggest that the content of the apology was a result of political pressure from South Korea and not that of impartial historical inquiry. While the panel concluded that factual matters were not distorted, the sheer suggestion of South Korean government’s involvement nevertheless implied factual doubt.

President Park has openly expressed frustration over Japan’s failure to admit this particular historical issue. Though her hard-line policy against Japan may just be an attempt to bolster domestic popularity, regardless it is true that her foreign policy has so far sacrificed Korea-Japan relations for a fuller resolution of this historical controversy.

Even before her inauguration, she demonstrated her willingness to treat the issue seriously. Amid rising concern that the Abe administration might revise the Kono Statement, then president-elect Park set up a meeting with Kono himself, now a retired politician, to discuss future Korea-Japan relations, thus sending a clear signal to the Japanese government that the issue would be treated seriously during her presidency.

When the Japanese government began to threaten the validity of the milestone apology, Park took her country’s ire to the international stage, bringing up the issue during a bilateral summit with President Obama in May 2013. In November of the same year, in an interview with the BBC, she singled out the comfort women issue as the crucial impediment to having a talk with Abe. Describing the victims as “women who have spent their blossoming years in hardship and suffering,” she said, “If Japan continues to stick to the same historical perceptions and repeat its past comments, then what purpose would a summit serve? Perhaps it would be better not to have one.”

Over the same period, the public view of Japan in South Korea has severely deteriorated. According to Seoul-based Asan Research Institute, in October 2013 South Korean public rated Japan as unlikable as North Korea, with both countries receiving a rating of 2.46 on a scale from 0-10. For February and March of 2014, Japan’s rating (2.2 and 2.3) was lower than that of North Korea (2.6 and 2.7). Asan also reported that in March 2014 Prime Minister Abe was more disliked by the South Korean public than Kim Jong-Un, scoring 1.11 to the notorious dictator’s 1.27.

China, although never a formal colony of Japan, suffered seriously from Japanese aggression. As a victim of Japanese imperialism, the Chinese government under Xi Jinping has begun to actively criticize the Abe administration’s revisionist attitude towards major historical controversies, a policy that could further widen the distance between South Korea and Japan, and even between South Korea and the U.S.

Chinese officials have made it clear that they regard the comfort women issue as a “heinous crime against humanity committed by Japanese militarism against people in victimized Asian countries” that stands on “iron-clad evidence.” It is not surprising that many Koreans would think they have found a strong ally in this historical controversy when the top spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry commented, “Japan should [...] seriously reflect on history and draw a lesson from it. Only by doing so can Japan get along with its Asian neighbors.”

More importantly, China’s verbal support is followed by actions. Last June, China officially applied to UNESCO to register its archives on comfort women as world documentary heritage. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese government was furious and asked China to withdraw the application, but China ignored their request. This move sparked debates in South Korea, involving high-level government officials, as to whether it too should make a similar application. China thus seems not an aloof supporter in comfort women issue but an avid agent helping push Japan into a corner.

Asan Research Institute’s country favorability poll suggests that China’s “charm offensive” is working to make China more popular among South Koreans. From 2013 to 2014, China gradually yet visibly improved its favorable image among the South Korean public. The U.S. has remained the most popular country for the same period, but the gap between the two countries’ favorability no longer seems insurmountable. In 2014, the favorability rating for the U.S. ranged from 5.5 to 6.0 while China’s ranged from 4.6 to 5.3.

Certainly, many factors have to be considered in explaining China’s increasing popularity. For example, the Chinese government under Xi has been more willing to reprimand North Korea than at any other time. At the same time, however, it is undeniable that the comfort women issue played a significant role.

The United States could be the biggest loser in this conflict over history between South Korea and Japan. The trilateral alliance among the United States, Japan, and South Korea has been a permanent feature in post-WWII East Asian politics. A byproduct of the Cold War, the alliance has adapted to new political realities—most notably the North Korean nuclear crisis—to prolong itself. A total of about 65,000 US troops are still stationed in both countries mainly for that purpose.

However, in US policymakers’ mind, the trilateral alliance can also be thought of as, borrowing from President Obama’s words, the upholder of “regional peace and security” generally. It is a check against a radical upending of the regional status quo represented by China’s meteoric rise. In other words, the alliance is a key to America’s success in the “Pivot to Asia” policy, which aims to secure “continued American leadership” in Asia-Pacific “well into this century.”

A new regional order led by China stands opposed to this vision, and in May 2014, at Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Xi Jinping claimed that Asian problems should be “solved by Asians themselves” and urged Asian countries to “completely abandon old security concepts.” Also, China proposed to establish an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a regional Chinese version of the World Bank, where the United States is not invited.

Against this background, an issue that estranges South Korea and Japan and catalyzes the formation of an alliance between China and South Korea should be alarming to the United States. Continuation of the current trend may end up fracturing the US-led political reality in the region.

It seems that the US government is aware of this problem. It is doing its part to resolve the controversy surrounding the comfort women issue by reprimanding Japan. In April 2014, President Obama defined the issue as a “deplorable” and “egregious” violation of human rights. The State Department’s official take on the issue is that Japan should “address this issue in a matter that promotes healing and facilitates better relations with neighboring states.”

However, it is evident that such rebukes have been too mild to affect the Abe administration’s position. Despite the occasional public announcement that the Kono Statement would not be revised after all, the current Japanese government’s fundamental view has not changed. For example, as late as February 2015, the Japanese Foreign Ministry asked the publishing company McGraw-Hill to “correct grave errors and descriptions that conflict with our nation” on the issue of comfort women. The textbook writes that approximately 200,000 women were “forcibly recruited, conscripted and dragooned” to “serve in military brothels.”

Michael Honda, a Japanese-American Congressman, argues that the federal government should take a more aggressive stance by officially endorsing HR 121, passed in 2007 under his leadership. The resolution calls on the Japanese government to formally “acknowledge, apologize, and accept historical responsibility for its Imperial Armed Force’s coercion of young women into sexual slavery” and “refute any claims that the sexual enslavement and trafficking of the comfort women never occurred.”

While a more forceful American policy is sure to cause discontent in Japan, the U.S. would find it difficult to leave the possibility of losing one of its “linchpin” allies, South Korea, to China over an issue on which there is almost a unanimous agreement from the international community and scholars.

Now the whole region is waiting for what Prime Minister Abe has to say on August 15 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the war’s end. Focus is on how his so-called “Abe statement” will address the comfort women issue, and Japan’s war crimes in general. With a majority of the Japanese public supporting the idea of including general apologetic comments within the statement, according to a recent poll conducted by Japan’s Asahi Shinbum, it is unclear how far Abe will go in acknowledging Japan’s responsibility. The tone of this speech will largely determine whether the comfort women issue will continue to grow in its potential to reshape the entire East Asian political order. •