Former South Korean ‘comfort woman’ Lee Ok-sun speaks as the others react during a news conference at the ‘House of Sharing,’ a special shelter for former ‘comfort women’, in Gwangju, South Korea, December 28, 2015. (IMAGE: Reuters)

by Lady Michelle-Jennifer Santos

31 December 2015, SEOUL (TSR) – South Korean wartime victims rejected Japan and South Korea signed landmark agreement on Monday to resolve the “comfort women” issue because they were not consulted and regard the deal as giving up women’s human rights.

Under the accord, Japan offered to pay a conditional $8.3m into a fund for surviving victims based on “painful awareness” of its responsibilities for the system of forced prostitution, pending that the envisaged humanitarian assistance must be clearly described in the agreement as a final and irreversible end of the comfort women issue.


The South Korean government has been urging Japan to admit responsibility for the comfort women issue and seeking compensation for them from Tokyo, saying that the comfort women issue was not covered by the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems Concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Cooperation between Japan and the Republic of Korea because their use was an inhumane, illicit act.

In the proposal, however, the Japanese government will expand medical and welfare assistance for former comfort women without changing its stance that the 1965 bilateral agreement completely and finally settled compensation issues between the two countries, including the comfort women issue, the source said.

Tokyo has been extending assistance for former comfort women even after the the Asian Women’s Fund, established in 1995, was dissolved in 2007. About ¥13 million is earmarked in the draft budget for fiscal 2016. The government has been working on a plan to make a new fund by drastically increasing the budget for former comfort women.

The Asian Women’s Fund was established in July 1995 under the government of Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. According to the Foreign Ministry, donations from the public totaling ¥600 million and ¥4.8 billion from government coffers were used for projects to support former comfort women, including payment of ¥2 million per person in monetary compensation for 285 of them in South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.

Prime ministers in the past sent apology letters to former comfort women. In Abe’s case, he extended his heartfelt apology and remorse by stating in a letter or other forms that the dignity and honor of many women were badly damaged during wartime, the government sources said.

, such as removing the statue of a girl symbolizing comfort women that was set up in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul and halting efforts to add materials related to comfort women to UNESCO’s Memory of the World list.

A Japanese government source said on Wednesday Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set the condition on the deal before releasing the public funds to help the women.

The Japanese government asked the South Korean side to stop any actions to defame Japan and demanded the removal of the statue of a girl erected in 2011 by the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan, a civic group helping former comfort women, on a sidewalk near the Japanese embassy.

The 1.5 metre bronze statue of a barefoot teenage girl in a traditional hanbok dress, sitting on a chair with fists clenched on her lap and an empty chair beside her has served as a potent symbol of Japanese wartime aggression.

Japan is concerned that that Seoul also submits materials related to comfort women to the Memory of the World list of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization jointly with China.

The development that could overshadow a recent deal to settle the issue.

However, South Korea did not agree to remove the statue, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said Seoul recognises Japan’s concerns and will hold discussions with the group that erected it to address the problem.

It will take an act of political courage in Seoul to relocate the artwork, the Associated Press reported.

The group behind the statue, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, rejected Yun’s comments as “disgraceful” and “appalling,” the report also said.

“We make it clear that the statue cannot be a condition for any kind of agreement or a tool,” the group said in a statement. “It is unacceptable for the government to talk about taking down or moving the statue.”

“The statue is not intimidating at all. It is a girl sitting quietly there,” Kim Seo-kyung, a sculptor who built the statue with her husband, told Reuters. “Look at Germany. They apologise almost every day but Japan is talking about removing the statue at the negotiation table?”

“Like the victims, the girl is not weak or too angry but is strong and never ashamed, looking at the Japanese embassy,” Kim said.

Ahn Shin-kwon, director of the House of Sharing, home to 10 of the surviving women, said: “The statue should be there forever to remember the past.”

Japan will be looking to South Korea to accomplish the statue’s removal, but may be willing to give Seoul time, Associated Press reported.

Agreement Not an Final Resolution But Giving Up People’s Rights

“President Park has a firm belief that the comfort woman issue is about damage to human rights of women,” a former official of the presidential office said Wednesday, “As a female president, she must have emphasized with them more desperately.”

The opposition parties raised their voices of criticism towards the recent agreement between South Korea and Japan because Park did the opposite, according to the Donga Op-Ed.

“The latest agreement is equal to giving up people`s rights,” said Moon Jae-in, head of the Minjoo Party of Korea (formerly the New Politics Alliance for Democracy), at the party`s supreme council meeting. “It is invalid since it lacks approval of the National Assembly.” Party floor leader Lee Jong-gul also said, “We will submit motion to dismiss Foreign Affairs Minister Yoon Byung-se and will request for President Park`s apology.”

The Op-Ed explains,

Why did President Park Geun-hye push strongly for early settlement of Japanese comfort women issue even as it has placed heavy pressures on her shoulders?

President Park has shown particular attention on the comfort woman issue since 2012 when she was running for president. She had emphasized that the issue has to be resolved while victims were still alive. “The victims are all in their mid 80s and over, and I feel the urgency to untangle their resentment while they’re still alive,” she told foreign reporters in November 2012. “We cannot wait forever to reconcile with history.”

Shorty after the inauguration as president in 2013, President Park examined ways to meet directly the victims and console them. But she gave up the idea because it would place too much burden on elderly people having to gather at one place. Instead, she ordered then Gender Equality and Family Minister Cho Yoon-sun to go and meet them face-to-face. When the comfort woman issue was widely recognized internationally through the Angouleme International Comics Festival in France last year, she praised it very highly saying “The event was an opportunity to console them with all heart.”

The Japan-South Korea agreement to settle the issue of “comfort women” should not be considered a final resolution as it was concluded without consulting the victims, a support group for the women said in a statement.

“The bilateral talks were held in the absence of the victims. As a result, there still remains a lot of work to do to make it a ‘final resolution,’ ” the Japan Action for Resolution of the Comfort Women Issue said this week.

The group said in the statement the agreement did not refer to measures on how to teach wartime history relating to the victims at schools and how to pass on their memory to future generations.

“The two countries, without touching on these points, agreed to refrain from accusing or criticizing each other over the issue in the international community,” it said. “This means they do not recognize the comfort women issue as one regarding women’s human rights.”

It also said the comfort women issue needed to be covered in the Japanese school curriculum and called on the government to carry out more research in a bid to search for the truth on behalf of the victims.

The same measures should be applied to other victims in the Asia-Pacific region by acknowledging the state’s responsibility, it added.

South Korean’s Top court’s rejection of petition on 1965 Korea-Japan claims deal reflects reality

Meanwhile, the South Korean Constitutional Court on Wednesday dismissed a petition on the constitutionality of the 1965 deal that Japan claims settled all issues of individual compensation to victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea in the early 20th century, according to a South Korean Op-Ed.

The plaintiff, a daughter of a Korean victim of Japan’s wartime forced labor, filed the constitutional complaint together with an administrative lawsuit in 2009, when the South Korean government decided to pay her 11.7 million won (9,954 U.S. dollars) in compensation under a 2007 law on wartime forced labor victims. She claimed that the 1965 agreement restricted individuals’ damages claims against the Japanese government and corporations, violating the anti-overrestriction principle specified in the Constitution. However, the top court decided that it was not necessary to deliberate on the suit because the constitutionality of the claims agreement would not affect the result of her administrative lawsuit.

“The top court’s dismissal is based on a judgment that the petition failed to meet the requirements of a constitutional suit and is thus not subject to its decision on the constitutionality of the deal. The rejection leaves the effects of the 1965 claims agreement intact. Had the Constitutional Court declared it unconstitutional, the decision would have created an enormous diplomatic turmoil that would undermine the bilateral relationship”, the Op-Ed said.

The Constitutional Court seems to have found a brilliant way to avoid the issue, as a decision of the deal’s constitutionality or unconstitutionality would have caused an enormous turmoil, the writer explains.

Unlike the issue of “comfort women,” or World War II sex slaves for the Japanese military, the forced labor issue is explicitly included in the Seoul-Tokyo claims agreement. The Japanese government and judiciary adhere to their position that claims between the two countries have been settled “completely and finally.”

In damages lawsuits filed by Korean forced labor victims, Japanese courts have consistently ruled against the plaintiffs. The South Korean government also views that the compensation issue has been completely settled by the claims agreement. Complicating the situation, however, South Korea’s Supreme Court made a ruling in 2012 that recognized individuals’ right to seek damages from Japanese corporations, and Japan protested the decision.

International agreements such as the Seoul-Tokyo claims agreement have the same effects as domestic law. South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yoon Byung-se had such a situation in mind when he said during a forum with television journalists before the Constitutional Court’s ruling: “We have come past a situation in which the impact of a domestic court ruling is limited within the country.”

Despite a recent trend of treating state compensations and individual ones separately, we view that the Constitutional Court’s decision reflects the possibility that a court’s reversal of an international agreement could have adverse impacts on national interest, the Op-Ed states.

Political Expediency and Conditional Compensation

If an offer is made and the support groups refuse to persuade the women to accept it, the survivors will likely die without seeing any deal on compensation, according to Japan Times report in June this year.

As far as the comfort women issue is concerned, the support groups are more influential than the government in Seoul, the report said.

Many protesters said that “Abe’s apology is just lip service” because the deal does not provide “anything more advanced than the Kono statement” according to Financial Times report.

Many protesters said the agreement was “humiliating” because Abe’s apology “stopped short of taking full legal responsibility, admitting only the “involvement” of the country’s military authorities,” the report said.

The women themselves and civic groups are saying that the agreement is insufficient, the apology insincere and that Japan has failed to adequately admit its legal responsibility.

“The current settlement includes a lot of strategic ambiguity, creatively engineered for political expediency…If left unattended, this will become a Pandora’s box later, according to an Op-Ed in Japan Today.

The concern stems from “Japan’s right-wing deniers” who have “the source of South Korea’s questioning the ‘sincerity’ of Japan’s apology in the past”, the Op-Ed said.

“For instance, Mr Abe’s apology should not be later demoted to his ‘personal’ apology, or some ranking Japanese official disowns Mr Abe’s apology,” the Op-Ed also said.

Disputes between Tokyo and Seoul over the issue of comfort women have strained bilateral ties and had prevented Abe, who took office in 2012, and President Park Geun Hye, who was inaugurated in 2013, from holding a one-on-one meeting until November, Japan Today reported.

Many South Koreans suspect the US, which welcomed the deal, is behind the agreement. Washington has pushed for a rapprochement between its two Asian allies to guard against China’s rising power and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions”, the Financial Times report said.

The deal will encourage Seoul and Tokyo to bolster their security alliance against North Korea, building on the trilateral intelligence-sharing agreement signed with Washington.

Analysts said that US “must have arm twisted both Japan and South Korea to settle the issue” which deepened Seoul’s fear of diplomatic isolation after “Mr Abe at the summit surprisingly expressed his desire to settle the issue by the end of the year”.

“The current settlement includes a lot of strategic ambiguity, creatively engineered for political expediency,” Lee said. “If left unattended, this will become a Pandora’s box later.”

The South Korean scholar also urged the Abe government to manage what he calls “Japan’s right-wing deniers.”

“For instance, Mr Abe’s apology should not be later demoted to his ‘personal’ apology, or some ranking Japanese official disowns Mr Abe’s apology,” he said. “This had been the source of South Korea’s questioning the ‘sincerity’ of Japan’s apology in the past.”

Seoul’s motivation is in its expressed interest in joining the TPP, which requires consensus among members.

The further complicates Seoul attempts to balance relations with the US and China as Ms Park has sought to reinforce her ties with Xi Jinping, China’s president, by attending September’s military parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the second world war.

During the meeting, Prime Minister Abe reportedly told President Park that the South China Sea situation is a common concern. He suggested the two countries cooperate about free navigation, according to a Vox News report.

Japan has offered support for U.S. efforts to protect important international shipping lanes in the South China Sea. South Korea has been unwilling to publicly criticize China over the issue.

The Northeast Asian leaders did not publicly discuss rising tensions in the South China Sea. They made a statement endorsing increased dialogue and cooperation to resolve regional disputes, the report said.

Financial Times report said that the deal frees South Korea from the accusation or suspicion that it has shifted towards China. On the other hand, it will also give China a convenient excuse to embrace North Korea as Mr Xi will be free from any sense of indebtedness to Seoul following [Ms Park’s] visit to Beijing.

About Comfort Women

According to The Asian Women’s Front, the comfort stations were first established at the request of the Japanese military authorities, as part of war efforts in China. According to military documents, private agents first opened brothels for officers and men stationed in Manchuria, around the time of the Manchurian Incident in 1931. Then term “ianfu (comfort women)” was not yet used and the attitude of the military itself was inactive.

Ianfu is Japan’s euphemism for the girls and women who were rounded up to provide sex for Imperial Japanese soldiers before and during World War II. Many of the victims were from the Korean Peninsula, which was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945.

When the war spread to Shanghai after the First Shanghai Incident in 1932, the first comfort station was established for a Japanese naval brigade posted there. The number of comfort stations increased rapidly after the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937.

The comfort women issue began drawing widespread public attention in South Korea after its 1987 shift to democracy began.

As the country democratized, citizens’ groups gained more and more power, and many began actively investigating the comfort women issue, experts say.

The most influential group — the Korean Council for the Women Drafted For Military Sexual Slavery by Japan — was established in 1990. It demands that Tokyo admit legal responsibility for comfort women issues, calls for official state compensation, punishment for those responsible and a formal government apology endorsed by the Diet.

Since the early 1990s, the two nations have seen the comfort women issue become an increasingly divisive. In 1993, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono for the first time admitted the responsibility of the Imperial Japanese military and other authorities in recruiting women against their will and forcing them to work at comfort stations set up by the military.

Two years later in 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s administration set up the private Asian Women’s Fund to provide “atonement money” to former comfort women from all nations.

The victims received about ¥2 million in donations from private Japanese citizens and up to ¥3 million in “medical and welfare support” from the government, together with a letter of formal apology signed by four successive prime ministers from 1996 to 2001, including Ryutaro Hashimoto, Keizo Obuchi, Yoshiro Mori and Junichiro Koizumi.

Despite those efforts, the now-defunct fund came under harsh criticism by South Korean citizens’ groups because Japan refused to admit any legal responsibility for the compensation, and because no personal or public apology had been issued by any of Japan’s top leaders.

Scholars continue to debate the number of women exploited.

According to the government, a total of 61 of the known South Korean victims accepted the fund’s offer — less than 30 percent of the 207 who had been officially recognized by Seoul as of 2002. Also, 211 Filipinos, 79 Dutch and 13 Taiwanese accepted the fund’s offer, media reports said.

Activists in South Korea say there may have been as many as 200,000 Korean victims, only a few of whom came forward.

There are 46 surviving “comfort women” in South Korea, out of the 238 who had come forward to share their stories of abuse, many taken from their homes when they were in their teens and forced to work as sex slaves.




“It seems neither government cares about the victims,” Lee Yong-soo, one of the remaining 46 survivors, told journalists in Seoul following the agreement. “I don’t count what they have agreed today.”

“What we want is not monetary compensation but a legal one,” said Lee. “We don’t want money. Those who commit crimes must take official, legal responsibility. I will fight until the day I die.”


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