No Comfort for Korean 'Comfort Women'

by Editorial, 01/01/2016

As 2015 comes to a close, South Korea and Japan announced that they have come to an agreement regarding the decades-long impasse over the ‘comfort women’ issue. An estimated 200,000 women were slaves in front-line Japanese military brothels during Word War II. While the victims included Chinese, south-east Asians, some Europeans and Japanese women, the vast majority were Korean. The 46 survivors in Korea are now mainly in their late 80’s or early 90’s.

The Korean government as indicated that it considers this accord ‘final and irreversible” as long as Japan follows through on its end of the bargain. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe has stated that this agreement is based on his commitment “to stop future generations from having to repeatedly apologize”. There has long been resistance in South Korea to past Japanese apologies because many wanted Japan to acknowledge that it has a legal responsibility to the women. Japan claims its legal responsibility was settled under a bilateral treaty signed in 1965 to normalize diplomatic relations, while Korea has maintained that sexual slavery was not addressed in the treaty because it is a crime against humanity.

This December 2016 agreement has not been received with universal approval in Korea either. A statement issued by a coalition of organisations stated “Although the Japanese government announced that it “feels [its] responsibilities,” the statement lacks the acknowledgment of the fact that the colonial government and its military had committed a systematic crime. The government had not just been simply involved but actively initiated the activities which were criminal and illegal.”*

Advocates also want the Japanese Prime Minister to personally apologise on behalf of his government to the ‘halmoni’ (grandmothers as the survivors are respectfully addressed) and to initiative “preventative initiatives such as truth seeking and history education”. This is of particular importance, in their view, as there as been consistent denial in Japan regarding this issue. If young people do not learn about what happened to these tens of thousands of women not only will this ‘crime against humanity’ disappear into the fog of the past but there is always the danger that mistakes may be made in the future.

There is also the question of the Peace Monument in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The bronze statue of a barefoot, seated girl was put up in 2011 and has been a rallying point for weekly protests. “The Peace Monument cannot be a condition or means for any Agreement. It is a public property and a historic symbol representing the peaceful spirit of the Wednesday Demonstrations, which has been continued by the survivors and the citizens for over a thousand Wednesdays.”*

Supporters of the surviving ‘comfort women’ both in Korea and abroad have expressed concern that the two governments want the whole issue to disappear by throwing a larger sum of money at the survivors. “Such an act of arrogation only adds to the pain of the victims even more.”*

*From the The Statement regarding the Agreement on the Japanese Military Sexual Slavery (Comfort Women”) Issue during the Korea-Japan Ministerial Meeting issued on 28 December 20215 by the following:  House of Sharing / Namhae Women's Association / Daegu Citizen Forum for Halmuni / Masan-Changwon-Jinhae Citizen Forum for Japanese "Comfort Women" / Tongyeong-Goeje Citizen Forum for Japanese "Comfort Women"/ The Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan

Note: A tour of the House of Sharing (HoS)/Museum of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery is offered every 3rd Saturday in English. For details on the monthly House of Sharing English Tour, click here.

Image: Peace Monument

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