Will the Comfort Women Deal between Korea and Japan Hold? I’m Skeptical

This is a re-post of an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute.

Japan and South Korea clinched a deal in late December over the comfort women. It is pretty controversial in Korea, and the Japanese are now insisting that the deal means the issue should never be brought up again ever. Given how deeply Koreans care about this – I can’t begin to list the huge number of student papers, conference papers, journal and newspaper articles, TV programs, emails, and what all I have read/seen over the years on this – I am very skeptical that an intergovernmental deal will suddenly close down an issue that attracts so much civil society and journalistic attention, not to mention helps shape South Korea’s anti-Japanist political identity.

Luckily for President Park Geun-Hye, the North Korean tests and bad weather of the last month distracted attention and made street protests difficult. In the coming year, I think the big tests of the deal’s ‘stickiness’ are the April parliamentary elections, and the moving the statue (pic above) from in front of the Japanese embassy. If the left doesn’t use this as a wedge issue, and if students and activists don’t human-shield the statue or attack the crane, then perhaps Koreans really are ready to move on. But I am very skeptical that an issue which has been built-up in K national consciousness for 25 years can suddenly be switched off by secretive, high-level deal among a bunch of bureaucrats. I don’t buy it…

The full Lowy essay on my skepticism follows the jump


Until the North Korean nuclear test grabbed everyone’s attention, the most important recent news to come out of Korea was the late 2015 deal between South Korea and Japan regarding the comfort women. Indeed, in so far as North Korea’s nuclear test is more of the same (it was not a thermonuclear device), the comfort women deal is arguably more important. The deal is hugely controversial and, I increasingly believe, unlikely to hold.

Lowy’s previous treatment of this has focused on the agreement’s fairness (or lack of), and there seems to be an emerging consensus that the comfort women got a poor deal (here, here, here). The comfort women themselves appear strongly opposed. The largest comfort women group, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan, strongly opposes it and has started a fund drive to replace the monies Japan has agreed to provide. Rather than debate the deal’s merits yet again, I want to look at the political questions surrounding it:

Why this Deal Now?

The external pressure on both sides was enormous and worsening.

The initial response, especially in Korea, was surprise. The deal seemed to fall out of the sky. The Park Geun-Hye administration gave little indication that a deal was coming, and initial reporting on it here called it ‘hasty’ and ‘thrown-together.’ President Park painted herself into a corner by insisting that the comfort women issue be dealt with in 2015, the 50th anniversary of Japan-Korea normalization. It increasingly looks like Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo played for time and got the better of negotiations. That likely explains the very late 2015 timing.

But there were huge structural pressures in the background: extraordinary and growing American pressure on the Tokyo and Seoul to finally put this issue to rest. Every western analyst, journalist, academic, government, or military figure I know with some involvement in this issue thought a resolution was critical. There has been constant track 1, 1.5, and 2 pressure on both parties to resolve it. There has been a torrent of articles, think-tank reports, policy briefs, books, and so on regarding this issue. Even President Obama got involved too. Everyone could see that the real winners of Japan-Korea estrangement are North Korea and China. As China continues its ascent and North Korea’s nuclear program expands, the unrelenting drumbeat of westerners at every level saying, ‘fix this,’ must have been exhausting.

Will South Koreans Accept this Deal?

It will be far more contentious in Korea than Japan.

As the links above suggest, there is a growing consensus that Japan got a lot out of the deal. In fact, I am rather surprised the Koreans accepted it, and the backlash here has already begun. Comfort women groups have hit the streets; the nationalist NGOs are opposed it; the weekly rallies at the comfort woman statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul have continued unabated; Korean intellectuals have taken to social media to push back.

The reaction of civil society groups and the media commentariat in the coming months, especially in the run up to parliamentary elections in April, will be crucial. The leftist groups and papers will come out against it, of course. Whether the Park government can move larger public opinion, to get the deal to ‘stick,’ is questionable at best. Park herself may have to give a major address in which she openly pleas for Koreans to accept that this was the best they could get. I am skeptical Koreans will accept that, especially from Park given her father’s past. Park Chung-Hee worked for the Japanese colonial administration in Korea, and later ruled as a dictator, accepting normalization terms from Japan which many Koreans considered a raw deal back then as well. The criticism that the current Park is ‘pro-Japanese’ and not willing to take a tougher stand can already be heard. If only Nixon could go to China, it may take a leftist nationalist president in South Korea to finally reconcile the left to a deal with Japan on this issue. I do not believe Park, or the secretive manner in which she handled the negotiations, can do it.

But more important than Park’s mixed effort are the larger background issues of Korea’s interpretation of Japan. As I have argued at the Interpreter before (here, here; much longer version here), the comfort women and the historical issues with Japan are central narratives in the construction of modern South Korean political identity. As a divided nation, South Korea must constantly demonstrate its ‘stateness’ and legitimacy against its mendacious and highly nationalistic Northern competitor. To win the inter-Korean legitimacy contest, South Korea defines itself against Japan and its imperial history here. For example, South Koreans get far more incensed by Japan’s behavior 75 years ago than North Korea’s far worse human rights behavior since then, and comparisons of the comfort women tragedy to the far-worse Holocaust are commonplace here. With so many groups vested in these issues, and so much of Korea’s ‘ontological security’ wrapped up in demanding recognition and contrition from Japan, are Koreans ready to move on? I am hugely skeptical, because Park has made no effort to lay this groundwork.

Will the South Korean Left Politicize the Deal?

The fragmenting, flailing left will be sorely tempted to use this as a wedge issue.

The deal tries to lay this issue to rest by insisting that it may not be re-visited in the future. Elites all around – Seoul, Tokyo, Washington – want this, but there will be a substantial bloc of rejectionists in South Korea. Hence reviving and politicizing this issue will be a tremendous temptation for the South Korean left, particularly given its disarray and inability to find an issue that will work against Park Geun-Hye. The left has been (surprisingly) unable to reap political gains from the many scandals of Park’s tenure: staffing controversies, the sinking of the Sewol ferry, the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Worse, the left, always more fragmented than the right anyway, is breaking into two rival blocks, with polling suggesting the right may take 60% of the April parliamentary vote.

In such dire circumstances, it is easy to see the left reaching for the highly resonant comfort women issue in a bid to prevent catastrophe. Hotly disputing the comfort women deal – painting it as a deal of the pro-Japanese right, and not the Korean people – would be an obvious, evocative wedge issue. As long Korean opposition to the deal can be relegated to the leftist newspapers and nationalist NGOs, Park might be able to swing public opinion. But if this takes over the National Assembly campaign in the spring, I think the deal will collapse.

If all this was not enough, the deal also intimates that the South Korean government will eventually move the statue from in front of the Japanese embassy. Tokyo claims, with some reason, that it violates the Vienna Convention on diplomacy prohibiting undue harassment of embassies. Moving it will be another huge controversy. This deal is the not the final statement Tokyo wants it to be.

6 thoughts on “Will the Comfort Women Deal between Korea and Japan Hold? I’m Skeptical

  1. Considering the facts on this issue, I disagree with Professor Kelly that Japan got the better deal.

    As a history student, I interviewed dozens of Koreans who were born in the 1920’s and 1930’s including my grandparents about comfort women. What they witnessed was Korean fathers selling their daughters, Korean comfort station owners deceiving Korean women. They never witnessed Japanese military coercing any Korean women.

    Many of the Korean comfort women’s fathers had debts and sold their daughters. The comfort station owners paid off their debts in advance, and depending on the amount of the debt, the woman’s contract length was determined. Korean women were not allowed to leave until their debts were paid off. Any coercion, violence or confinement was exercised by the Korean owners. So if one wants to use the term “sex slaves” to describe former Korean comfort women, they were the sex slaves of Korean comfort station owners. They were not the sex slaves of the Japanese military.

    The primary sources such as:

    Korean newspaper reports from 1930’s


    and a diary written by a Korean comfort station worker


    confirm what I heard from my grandparents and their contemporaries.

    I don’t exonerate the Japanese military because its invasion into China and Southeast Asia did create the demand for comfort women. But the Korean narrative “The Japanese military showed up at the doors and abducted young Korean women” just didn’t happen. The Korean comfort station owners capitalized on the demand, recruited Korean women, operated comfort stations and made lots of money. Japan has apologized for its part. South Korea should admit its complicity and stop demanding Japan for more apologies.

    Professor Kelly is right that the South Korean leftists badly need this issue to remain unresolved in order for them to survive politically. In fact they were the ones who created this issue out of nothing in the early 1990’s. Many of the members of the civil group ‘Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery’ have arrest records as former North Korean spies, and they created the comfort women issue to drive a wedge into U.S.-Japan-South Korea security partnership in the first place.

    Professor Park Yuha’s book ‘Comfort Women of the Empire’ illustrates this point very well.



    • Your statement contradicts itself.

      “What they witnessed was Korean fathers selling their daughters, Korean comfort station owners deceiving Korean women. They never witnessed Japanese military coercing any Korean women.”

      That may be the case, but when a young Korean girl is shipped off to a military comfort station, she is damn well coerced by the Japanese soldiers after she arrives.

      Plus remember the Japanese army sent over 4million soldiers to try and conquer China, yet ended up in a never-ending military quagmire for 14 years until the end of WW2 How many women could they find who would volunteer for a comfort station?

      And remember the soldiers of the Yamato race regarded the Chinese and Koreans as almost subhuman – and was particularly noted for its stellar discipline and upstanding morality after taking a city.


      • You apparently haven’t read the diary written by a Korean comfort station worker.

        >when a young Korean girl is shipped off to a military comfort station, she is damn well coerced by the Japanese soldiers

        The comfort stations where Korean women worked were not operated by the Japanese military. They were owned and operated by the Korean comfort station owners. Korean owners beat and sometimes raped Korean women when they didn’t obey their orders. This fact is well documented in the diary. Japanese soldiers visited comfort stations as customers.

        >How many women could they find who would volunteer for a comfort station?

        Some Korean women were prostitutes in the first place while others were either sold by their families to settle family debts or deceived by Korean comfort station owners’ agents.

        You haven’t provided any primary sources to back up any of your assertions. I have.

        Read the following as well to understand this issue more.





  2. Pingback: The Comfort Women Deal Six Months On – Where’s the Korean Backlash? | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  3. Another popularly overlooked factor is the action of re-negging on the deal itself. The action of signing an agreement at the highest level, and then later nullifying it simply because public opinion pushes back eats away at Korea Inc.’s credibility. Nullifying this agreement would most certainly mean that no further agreements would be signed between Japan and Korea, at great risk of the later deciding to nullify it whenever it is convenient politically for them to do so. The Japanese will not stick out their necks if South Korea, like North Korea, gains the dubious reputation of being completely untrustworthy where the signing of official agreements of concerned. Nullifying this agreements will essentially give the Japanese right wingers all of the ammunition they need to torpedo any future agreements, and will allow Japanese politicians to say “Hey, we tried, but the South Koreans simply can’t be trusted to honor contracts or agreements…..so there is no point in engaging with them at all on any historical issues.”


  4. Pingback: Korea’s Healthily Bland Presidential Race | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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