On Monday, the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan announced a deal meant to bring resolution to decades of animosity over the issue of comfort women: the tens of thousands of Korean women forced to work as sex slaves by Japan during the Second World War.
In a joint statement delivered by Fumio Kishida alongside his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se, the Japanese government pledged a fund which will be worth 1 billion yen ($8.3 million), with the money to be shared equally among the 46 living victims, most of whom are now in their late eighties and early nineties. The statement also included a message from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who offered:
‘his most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds’
Prior to Monday’s announcement, Japan had long argued that the issue of comfort women was settled by a 1965 treaty, which restored diplomatic ties between the countries and was accompanied by more than $800 million in economic aid and loans to Seoul.
In 1993, the Kono Statement – issued by Japan’s then chief cabinet secretary Yohei Kono – acknowledged for the first time the Imperial Japanese Army’s use of sex slaves. This led to the creation in 1995 of the Asian Women’s Fund, set up by the Japanese government to compensate women in South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Indonesia.
Although the government provided the majority of the fund’s money, which eventually amounted to several billion yen, it also relied on private donations and was managed as a non-governmental organisation. 364 women are recorded as accepting payment – amounting to 2 million yen per person in ‘atonement money’, plus up to 3 million yen per person in medical and welfare fees – and money also went towards social welfare facilities in Indonesia, before the AWF was dissolved in 2007.
Yet despite the care taken over the wording of the Kono Statement, in recent years Abe and other conservative politicians and academics continued to question whether the Japanese government and military were directly involved in procuring women for sex. Instead they alleged the responsibility of private recruiters, while denying that the military had been involved in acts of coercion. Meanwhile South Koreans who had rejected the AWF repeated their calls for a more substantial form of official redress.
Disagreement remains over the scale of the abuse. The absence of records – with official documents pertaining to the war in Japan subsequently destroyed, while victims were reluctant to speak out – means that estimates on the number of women involved range from 20,000 to as many as 400,000. International media outlets typically offer a middle figure of 200,000, with the majority of these thought to be from the Korean peninsula.
According to extant accounts, women were effectively kidnapped and forced to work in brothels, often on the front line of the war. In some cases they were abducted from their homes, in others lured with promises of work and then imprisoned in ‘comfort stations’ that extended throughout the territories occupied by Japan. It is believed that many women died in these stations, while others suffered sexual trauma and disease. Kim Hak-sun, a Korean victim, was the first to share her story at a press conference in August 1991.
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The issue of comfort women has been especially heated following Shinzo Abe’s re-election as Prime Minister of Japan in 2012. Marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in August by reiterating previous apologies for Japan’s conduct, he nevertheless received criticism at home and abroad for his decision to reinterpret the constitution by allowing the military to participate in foreign conflicts for the first time since 1945. Like Abe, the President of South Korea Park Geun-hye – who became the Republic’s first female President when she assumed office in 2013 – has been accused of unhelpfully stoking nationalist sentiment.
Park had previously described the impasse over comfort women as ‘the biggest obstacle’ to improved bilateral relations. But in November she and Abe met in Seoul, for their first formal talks since taking office. Allied to the recent decision by a South Korean court to acquit a Japanese reporter accused of defaming Park, and to the court’s refusal to admit a complaint by a South Korean seeking compensation for Japan’s colonial rule from 1910, this stirred hopes of a hitherto unlikely compromise.
The Japanese half of Monday’s statement saw its government concede that the Imperial Army were responsible for the sexual enslavement of women. Kishida said:
‘The issue of comfort women, with an involvement of the Japanese military authorities at that time, was a grave affront to the honour and dignity of large numbers of women, and the government of Japan is painfully aware of responsibilities from this perspective.’
Both Kishida and Yun Byung-se declared the deal to have ‘finally and irreversibly’ resolved the issue. Yun also suggested that South Korea would be willing to discuss the removal of a statue memorialising the victims which currently stands outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Prime Minister Abe later told reporters, ‘Japan and South Korea are now entering a new era. We should not drag this problem into the next generation.’
But Monday’s deal has already received condemnation, by campaigners and rights groups lamenting that the women were offered no part in the negotiation process, and are still to receive the full admission of legal responsibility which they desire from the Japanese government.
Despite its billing as an Asian Women’s Fund, between 1995 and 2007 there were no steps taken to compensate victims in China and North Korea, and Monday’s deal does nothing to rectify this state of affairs. In China the matter was muddied by the Japan-China Joint Communique of 1972, which temporarily severed relations and saw China renounce any claim on war reparations. Japan and North Korea have never established diplomatic ties, and despite Pyongyang’s call back in November for inclusion in any talks, the story of North Korean women’s suffering remains untold and unrecognised.