During Imperial Japan’s occupation and colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945, one of the most egregious examples of the inhumanity of its conquering army was its treatment of the Korean “comfort women.”
“Comfort women” is a euphemism that seriously downplays what was in fact a horrible war crime. The Korean comfort women were women who were ripped from their homes and families and forced into brothels to sexually service the invading Japanese forces. These women were basically sex slaves, victims of years of serial rape.
The phenomenon of the comfort women was not just a terrible wartime exploitation and humiliation of those particular individuals, but of the Korean nation collectively. The painful wound it caused has never fully healed.
Attempts to Make Amends
There have been efforts over the years to resolve the issue of the Korean comfort women, but it is difficult. Countries rarely apologize and accept responsibility for wrongdoing. They might apologize and pay reparations immediately after losing a war, but that’s at the point of a gun. An honest, uncoerced taking stock of oneself and admission of guilt is hard enough for individuals, let alone for nations.
Then from the other side, in the face of unspeakable atrocities, what level of contrition, what gesture, what payment, will ever truly seem adequate to the victims? What could Japan do that would make the Korean people who have heard and read the testimonies of the comfort women feel that the slate has been wiped clean, that they have no remaining grievance against Japan?
In 2015, a “final and irrevocable settlement” was reached between South Korean President Park Geun Hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, wherein Japan apologized and paid an indemnity to the few surviving comfort women. As part of the settlement, the South Korean government agreed to the removal of a prominent sculpture in Seoul that depicts one of the comfort women. The seated woman stares accusingly straight ahead from directly across the street from the Japanese embassy, serving as a persistent reminder and embarrassment to the Japanese.
In Japan, the political right was infuriated by the settlement. In South Korea, some of the surviving comfort women refused the money offered to them, and a low-budget Korean movie called Spirits’ Homecoming about the plight of the comfort women became an unexpected massive hit. The offending sculpture has still not been removed, and indeed there has been a further escalation of the controversy with the erection of a second such statue in Busan. The continued existence of the Seoul sculpture and the addition of the Busan one has led to further bickering and denunciations, and ultimately to Prime Minister Abe’s recalling of his nation’s top diplomats from South Korea.
Honoring and respecting the comfort women and their testimonies is morally obligatory. Yet at the same time there are important incentives for South Koreans and Japanese to de-escalate this controversy and improve relations between their nations.
The South Korean economy is struggling. Youth unemployment is worsening. Trade with China is down due to China increasingly being able to manufacture sophisticated goods it used to obtain from South Korea. The conflict with Japan has threatened a proposed currency swap agreement that is expected to help stabilize the South Korean won.
Both South Korea and Japan would be better served working out their differences and finding ways to cooperate, in the face not only of the rising regional power China, but unstable, unpredictable leadership in North Korea and the United States. Continuing the conflict over the comfort women, as important as that issue is, will not facilitate such cooperation.