The Comfort Women Deal Six Months On – Where’s the Korean Backlash?


The following is an op-ed I published in last week’s Newsweek Japan, where I write once a month. My editor asked me to write about how the comfort women deal of last year is getting on, and I have to say that I am surprised just how little we even hear about it anymore. For an issue that the Korean media often treated as central to South Korean identity, it seems to have inexplicably dropped out of the newspapers (which, I strongly suspect, displays how much the Korean government ‘directs’ the media here.)

So the main argument I make advances the one I made a few months ago: that if the Korean left does not fight back against the deal, then the deal achieves a level of national consensus it did not have initially when it was clinched in secret by a conservative government. And now that the left has surprisingly taken the majority in the parliament, this is the first and most important acid test for the deal. If the left doesn’t use its newfound power to go after the deal, then they are tacitly approving it.

Of course, no one in Korea will proactively say that they support the deal, but not acting is a way acting too. If the left, which has done so much to create this issue, does not re-politicize it, then that basically mean a broad, however unspoken, left-right consensus has emerged to take the deal and let the issue slowly disappear. The activist groups and leftist intellectuals, many of whom seem to have built their careers around the comfort women, will never give up. But without political representation, they are just one more voice in South Korea’s cacophonous civil society.

I have to say that I am really surprised that events are running this way. Just about every Korean I know gets really indignant and emotional at the mention of this issue. Yet the political class has dropped like a hot potato. So all these years of sturm und drang are over, just like that? Really? Still not sure why this has happened – American pressure? it was all just an act? everyone is truly terrified of NK and wants Japanese solidarity?

The full essay follows the jump.


In December 2015, the administrations of Korean President Park Geun-Hye and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo surprised almost everyone by “finally and irreversibly” settling the comfort women issue that had long-plagued Japan-Korea relations. Tokyo is to pay ¥1 billion to several Korean women coerced or lured into sexual slavery during the Japanese colonial period (long maintained by Korea as coordinated and sanctioned by official channels), and in return the South Korean government is to drop the issue and not pursue future claims. Though many interpreted the deal as a new beginning, virtually no part of it has moved forward. Park has seemingly stalled, and Abe has not pressed. A new left-wing majority entered the Korean legislature this past spring, leaving many to questioning whether the deal will survive, given the left’s history of comfort women advocacy. So far, though, it remains.

North Korea – the Real Reason for the Deal

North Korea is a central reason. Its aggressive behavior this year drowned out any controversy over the deal and illustrates the geopolitical pressures behind the deal. The two Koreas are experiencing levels of hostility not seen since a North Korean submarine sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan in early 2010. In the months since the comfort women deal was signed, Pyongyang has conducted its fourth nuclear test, launched several missiles, shuttered the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and organized a much-hyped Workers’ Party Congress, the first in 36 years. Both Japan and Korea have shown newfound pragmatism regarding their shared security threat, and have seemingly put ancillary issues, such as the comfort women deal, on the backburner.

This apparent reprioritization can been seen in the behavior of the Park Administration, which has mothballed two committees explicitly designed to explore the comfort women issue in depth. Established in 2013 and 2015 respectively, each task force was to produce a white paper that was to guide policy discussion regarding the comfort women. Their reports, due last December, were unexpectedly shelved. Both committees remain in hiatus.

Still Not Popular Though

Nevertheless, key provisions of the deal have yet to materialize, perhaps in response to the deal’s unpopularity in Korea. No mechanism has yet been set up for the Japanese government to deposit the promised ¥1 billion to the surviving comfort women themselves. A statue of a comfort woman in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, possibly a harassment violation of the Vienna Convention on diplomacy, was also to be moved as part of the deal (and in fact, Tokyo may choose not to deposit any money if that statute remains).

The victory of the left in this spring’s parliamentary elections opens the possibility that the issue will be revisited. The left historically oscillates from skepticism to unabashed hostility towards Japan, with some going as far to argue that Tokyo, not Pyongyang, is South Korea’s greatest enemy. The comfort women issue has long been a rallying cry for both real and imagined hardships endured by Koreans during the Japanese colonization period of 1910 to 1945.

The main opposition Minjoo Party, along with the left-of-center Kookmin Party, could certainly push through legislation amending, obstructing, or even dismantling the deal itself. It remains, after all, unpopular among the Korean electorate. President Park’s approval ratings are low, and a looming presidential election next year suggests the time is ripe for political opportunism.

Silence Indicates Approval?

The National Assembly has yet to do much of anything since the April 13th elections. Members have been squabbling over speaker and committee positions, missing their June 7th deadline. This fails to explain however why members of the left have not utilized unofficial channels to voice their discontent.

Silence on the issue can be telling. No elected opposition members have spoken out since the election. The most influential person, other than President Park, to comment on the comfort women deal is the Minjoo Party’s interim chairman Kim Chong In. He has in fact come out in favor of it, expressing a desire to close the book on a decades-long issue that has handicapped relations between the two countries.

The comfort women deal remains in flux. Park no longer enjoys a majority in the legislature and will struggle to pass anything. That calls into question whether or not she can establish the necessary mechanisms for Tokyo to deposit the promised funds, move the statue, or even fend off possible amendments or impediments to the deal itself. However, the left’s silence on the issue signals a tacit acceptance that moving on is perhaps the best decision for both countries. If the left does not move on the issue by the end of the year, that will imply a national consensus, however grudging, to respect the deal.

11 thoughts on “The Comfort Women Deal Six Months On – Where’s the Korean Backlash?

  1. Interesting. My guess would be that, in view of your earlier column persuasively naming anti-Japan resentment as a means of competing with NK for legitimacy, that SK presently has bigger fish to fry– if it has immediate and pressing hostility against NK in light of sanctions and now THAAD, it doesn’t so much need anti-Japan hostility to create legitimacy– either the legitimacy is there already, or perhaps there is a maturing consensus that NK is an enemy state and not the “other” and competing Korea. My students, and the newer generation, I think (I am generalizing) can certainly be nationalistic but NK fits much less into that mindset; they’re an alien and enemy nation.

    Another possibility is the simple one, that SK is taken up with domestic politics and the jockeying of a post-election shakeup, and Japan is on the backburner for now. It will come back.


  2. Along with having larger fish to fry, perhaps the Koreans (the politicians anyway, if not the people themselves) are simply resigned that under a govt. like Abe’s they’re never going to get the sort of historical acknowledgment they’re seeking. But this issue’s a bit more complicated than just dedicated “professional activists” (after all, what of the former Comfort Women themselves?). Sure we may love for our allies to reconcile, but the way this deal was made and the continued refusal for a full honest appraisal of history, there’s no way that these issues have been permanently laid to rest. If nothing has really changed in 71 years, then a 6 month period of relative silence isn’t really all that remarkable.


    • Since you want a full honest appraisal of history, I’ll give you one. My wife’s grandmother was a victim in the first newspaper report dated March 28, 1939 of the following article.

      She was deceived by the Korean traffickers but was rescued by kind Japanese policemen. And there were so many similar incidents like the one she experienced.

      The Japanese military was certainly guilty of creating the demand for comfort women by invading into China and Southeast Asia. But the Korean narrative — The Japanese military abducted Korean women and operated comfort stations — just didn’t happen. That narrative was created by the Korean leftists in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as Professor Kelly pointed out. Most of the Korean women were either sold by their fathers to Korean comfort station owners or were deceived by Korean traffickers.

      The following is a paragraph referring to comfort women from a recently discovered U.S. military report in which Korean POW’s were interrogated.

      Considering what really happened, South Korea was lucky to get this deal from Japan.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand right on cue, here come the uyoku trolls. You guys should hold a joint symposium with your counterparts here in the US on how slavery wasn’t that bad for Black Americans. I don’t remember Mr. Kelly ever agreeing that the comfort women issue was an invention of the Korean left. I see you ignored his posts castigating Abe for missed opportunities to resolve things with Korea including the CW issue. Also Japanese-ruled Korea was a bastion of press freedom huh? The media of a colony prints glowing articles claiming the moral virtue of the occupier and we’re supposed to accept that at face value?


      • Provide primary sources if you want to argue.

        I know a number of elderly Koreans who have first-hand knowledge of the incidents in those newspaper reports. Those incidents indeed happened.

        Read the following articles by scholars who actually experienced Japan’s annexation of Korea.

        Have you read the book written by Professor Park Yuha? Here is a summary in English.

        You should also read the book written by Professor Chunghee Sarah Soh.

        Have you read a diary written by a Korean comfort station manager?

        In case you can’t read Korean, here is the analysis in English by Professor Choe Kil-sung

        Click to access Chapter-51.pdf

        Also read the memoir written by a former Korean comfort woman Mun Ok-chu.

        I look forward to your reply with concrete sources 🙂


      • An anonymous blogger without any verified credentials calling himself the “Pursuit of Truth Institute”. Oh yeah that just SCREAMS legitimacy! Likewise this “Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact” just sounds like a Japanese-oriented version of the “Institute for Historical Review”. Sarah Soh sounds like a feminist whose hobby horse is “patriarchal” manipulation of former comfort women by Korean sexism. According to this review ( she does seem harsher on the Korean “redress activists” than Japanese conservatives, but she doesn’t necessarily completely exonerate Japan either. Another review ( has her positing “fascist paternalism” in Japan. Again, this review also notes that her main target seems to be the hypocrisy of sexist Koreans “using” Korean ex-CWs. But even if Koreans are being “hypocritical”, again, this doesn’t automatically exonerate the old Japanese regime. The same Japan Times writer also reviewed Park Yuha’s book. Interestingly, according to Mr. Kingston Japanese rightists seem to have successfully painted her as someone sympathetic to their views, although in her correspondance with Mr. Kingston, she doesn’t sound like that at all: ( This Mun Oku-chu simply sounds like a collaborator. All empires, even the Nazi German one, had their share of colonial loyalists.


      • The blog articles provide original and/or independent sources. So if you feel the blog is biased for some reason, then simply rely on those sources.

        I’ve never said the Japanese military was innocent. If you refer to my first comment, I said “The Japanese military was certainly guilty of creating the demand for comfort women by invading into China and Southeast Asia. But the Korean narrative — The Japanese military abducted Korean women and operated comfort stations — just didn’t happen.”

        So I agree with Professor Park Yuha and Professor Chunghee Sarah Soh. Professor Soh says, “Korean society must repudiate victimization, admit its complicity and accept that the system was not criminal.” I totally agree with this statement. Both sides were guilty, but the Koreans (especially the pro-North activists Chong Dae Hyup) try to put 100% blame on the Japanese.

        Please also remember that the South Korean military recruited Vietnamese comfort women during the Vietnam War and its own women (Korean women) for the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea in 1960’s and 1970’s.

        Considering what really took place (and most Koreans are not aware of the truth because they are so brainwashed in schools as Professor Choe Ki-ho puts it ), I feel that the recent agreement between South Korea and Japan is a fair one, and I want South Korea and Japan to get along. But the Koreans are not satisfied with the agreement. They never will be! After all anti-Japanism is the Korean identity. It is written in the first sentense of its constitution. Without it the Koreans won’t know what to do with themselves


      • “So I agree with Professor Park Yuha” who Mr. Kingston quotes:”Koreans, she says, believed they were forcibly recruited because ‘recruiters in military uniforms (who acted as civilian employees of the military) deceived them into becoming comfort women by telling them that they were being taken to serve in the teishintai (forcibly, albeit as part of the national mobilization facilitated by the creation of laws, but ‘voluntary’ in form).’ Thus, she concludes that ‘women with such experiences perceived them as forcible recruitment. In other words, rather than former comfort women telling lies, it is highly likely that recruiters … had lied.’ And for Japanese deniers, she inconveniently points out that ‘it appears that recruiters were often pairs of Japanese and Korean men.” Recruitment under deception for a pseudo-voluntary mass mobilization program pretty much IS kidnapping. As for Soh’s comment, there have been similar calls throughout Europe to re-examine history and admit that the extent of Axis collaboration was a lot greater than post-war Europeans care to admit. So sure, there may have been a lot of Korean collaborators and not every Korean was chomping at the bit for restoration of independence. But to erase the primary responsibility of the imperialist occupier? If that’s what she’s really arguing then this must be one of her “logical lapses” that Kingston mentions. As for Vietnam, absolutely the S. Koreans need to apologize for any wrongdoing committed against the Vietnamese. There have been editorials in the mainstream SK media calling for such ( and the same Korean left the uyoku generally accuse of “concocting” the comfort women “myth” have privately opened a “peace park” in Vietnam acknowledging atrocities ( Still, the ROK presence in Vietnam was part of a multi-national force requested by the full authority of the S. Vietnamese government. Certainly Seoul never annexed S. Vietnam. Whereas the Japanese occupation of Korea was done with the collaboration of a treasonous political faction during a time when the Korean regime was indeed weak and not fully in control of its own affairs. Any coercive/deceptive CW recruitment by the postwar ROK also needs to be accounted for. After all, the deeds of the old SK dictatorships such as the Jeju and Gwangju massacres have been acknowledged. If it’s true that they also continued the CW program on their own, that needs to be accounted for too. But none of this excuses what Japan did. That’s like arguing that since the United States practiced racial segregation, had conducted medical experiments on Black men without their knowledge or consent, rounded up its own citizens solely because of their ethnicity, etc. Nazi Germany gets a reprieve.


  3. ECY,

    >Professor Park Yuha

    Have you read her book “Comfort Women of the Empire”?

    In the book she clearly says “the Japanese government was not officially involved in and therefore was not legally responsible for coercing Korean women.” She also says that as a general rule Korean comfort station owners and their agents recruited Korean women in the Peninsula and Japanese comfort station owners recruited Japanese women in Japan. (By the way there were more Japanese comfort women than Korean comfort women) She is currently facing criminal prosecution in South Korea for dafaming former comfort women’s honor believe it or not and has toned down her rhetoric by coming up with this new idea of Korean and Japanese recruiters in pair, which is understandable. But even if there were some private Japanese recruiters in the Korean Peninsula, that still doesn’t hold the Japanese government legally responsible for coercing Korean women. There are clear evidneces that the South Korean government and its military were directly involved in forcibly recruiting Vietnamese women in 1960’s and 1970’s whereas in 1930’s and 1940’s private recruiters filled the demand created by the Japanese military. But as I said before I still don’t exonerate the Japanese military becuase it created the root cause.

    Have you read the diary written by a Korean comfort station manager?

    This is the best primary source in my opinion. The diary mentions that comfort station ownership was being trade among Korean owners. It also contains the detail account of Korean owners wire transferring huge profit they made from their comfort station operations. The following is the list of comfort stations and their owners that appear in the diary.

    Although they had Japanese last names, they were all Koreans. The fact that they had Japanese last names could have created the impression that there were some Japanese recruiters in the Peninsula by the way.

    The following is the list of comfort stations in Shanghai where Korean women worked, and the owners were all Koreans as well.

    >As for Vietnam, absolutely the S. Koreans need to apologize for any wrongdoing committed against the Vietnamese

    The South Korean government will never be able to officially apologize because of pressure from its veterans.

    KAOVA is a very powerful special interest group in South Korea, and it would be political suicide for any politician to go against them.

    >the same Korean left the uyoku generally accuse of concocting the comfort women myth

    The Korean leftists keep erecting comfort women statues around the world. They claim the statues are for women whose rights were violated in wars, but they only mention the Japanese military. I’ll give them credit if they also mention what the South Korean military did.

    The following is how Koreans perceived comfort women in 1945.

    “Comfort women were volunteers or were sold by their parents into prostitution. This is proper in Korean way of thinking, but direct conscription of women by the Japanese would be an outrage that the old and young alike would not tolerate. Men would rise up in a rage, killing Japanese no matter what consequence they might suffer.”

    Well no Korean men rose up, so there was no direct conscription by the Japanese.

    The following is a Korean newspaper “Kyunghyang Shinmun” article in 1977.

    “A female Korean comfort station owner trafficked dozens of Korean comfort women to Rabaul, Papua New Guinea to provide sex to Japanese soldiers during World War II.”

    It was common knowledge in South Korea in 1977 that Korean comfort station owners recruited Korean women and operated comfort stations, and no South Koreans contested that notion.

    The Korean leftists with close ties to North Korea formed “Chong Dae Hyup” in 1990, and that was when the comfort women became an issue. Key members of Chong Dae Hyup have arrest records as former North Korean spies

    Yun Mi-Hyang (Chairwoman) was investigated by police for contacting North Korea in 2013.
    Kim Sam-Suk (Yun Mi-Hyang’s husband) was arrested as a North Korean spy in 1993.
    Kim Eun-Ju (Kim Sam-Suk’s sister) was arrested as a North Korean spy in 1993.
    Choi Gi-Yong (Kim Eun-Ju’s husband) was arrested as a North Korean spy in 2006.
    Lee Seok-Gi (member) was arrested as a North Korean spy in 2013.

    They receive funding from North Korea through Chongryon in Japan, and they continue to spread the false claim — 200,000 Korean women were abducted by the Japanese military — throughout the world in order to drive a wedge into U.S.-Japan-South Korea security partnership. It is not a myth.


  4. Pingback: North Korea, China want to undo the Japan-South Korea Alliance that the US helped broker | Discerning the Times

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s