In 2015, Japan and South Korea came to a bilateral agreement regarding the wartime use of comfort women from the Korean peninsula. This deal, considered final and irreversible by both countries, is currently under threat by the Moon administration. Much to the dissatisfaction of legal scholars, the deal set was ratified by both counties involved and both are obliged to uphold the terms of the agreement.
Who Were the Comfort Women?
Comfort women is the name commonly known for those who served in wartime brothels during World War II. During the war, Japan occupied much of southeast Asia including Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. Here, local women alongside local brokers were recruited to work in brothels to sexually service Imperial soldiers. Testimonies of their experiences have been meticulously recorded and preserved in historical archives.
Since the end of the war, Japan has apologized formally and informally many times specifically regarding the comfort women issue. The first apology came from Emperor Hirohito of Japan, who immediately after the Potsdam Declaration, expressed the following:
I come before you to offer myself to the judgment of the powers you represent, as one to bear sole responsibility for every political and military decision made and action taken by my people in the conduct of the war.
According to the author of Comfort Women of the Empire Dr. Park Yuha, research post-WWII shows that after the end of the war, many comfort women feared returning home due to the stigmatization they would surely face from their societies. Their worst fears materialized, as their respective societies, based on tenets of purity and cleanliness, often left them unsuitable for marriage. Now elderly or passed on, many lived the remainder of their lives without husbands or family support behind them.
What is the House of Sharing?
Founded by various religious and non-governmental organizations, the House of Sharing is a place where many former comfort women lived in their elderly years. The House of Sharing was founded in 1992 and is funded by various Buddhist organizations and socio-civic groups. It is effectively a nursing home facility in a Korean-style rental house in Seoul. In 1995, the complex was rebuilt to a more spacious facility. As well as a place to live, the House of Sharing offers art therapy programs for its elderly residents, which showcases artwork the former comfort women created while residing there.
In the 1960s, a treaty between South Korea and Japan was signed, called the “Treaty on Basic Relations”. This was the first time Japan and South Kore developed official diplomatic relations since the end of World War II. Because South Korea was not a signatory state to the Treaty of San Francisco, it was not entitled to the benefits listed under article 14 which stipulated directly reparations by Japan. This invited high-level bilateral talk between the two nations who needed to form diplomatic relations for economic and security reasons. High level talks preceding the treaty were held over a period of 14 years, starting in the 1950s.
Media Portrayal of Comfort Women
The issue of comfort women gained high international recognition after a false newspaper publication by the Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun. Here, a report detailed 200,000 women working in the comfort women system but was later identified to be incorrect. The false number was in fact attributed to a novel writer names Seiji Yoshida. The error was officially redacted by the newspaper after it was uncovered by historian Ikuhiko Hata. Dr. Park Yuha comments on the matter, stating:
“Two hundred thousand was the number of factory workers conscripted. About 150,000 of them were Japanese and 50,000 were Koreans. Many of them were teenage girls. Common misunderstanding in the West of “200,000 young girls were coerced by Japanese military” arose because Asahi Shimbun mistook factory workers for comfort women in August 11th, 1991 article, which inflated the number. The estimates of comfort women numbers vary from 20,000 to 70,000 depending on the historians. Most comfort women were Japanese, Koreans and Taiwanese, and they were recruited by brokers, not by Japanese military. In the battlefields of Indonesia and the Philippines, dozens of Dutch and Filipino women were abducted by lower ranked Japanese soldiers and were taken to comfort station operators. (Those soldiers and operators were court-martialed, and some of them executed). Most comfort women were not teenage girls but were in their 20’s and 30’s. The correct statement should instead be “Between 20,000 and 70,000 worked as comfort women, of which dozens were abducted by Japanese soldiers.”
In 2014, the Asahi Shimbun admitted to many errors in several publications on the comfort women issue. The correction followed a study Ikuhiko Hata pointed out errors in a 1992 account of the situation. In April and May of 2014, the Ashai sent investigators to interview approximately 40 elderly residents of the cities in question, and the interviews concluded finally that Yoshida’s accounts were false.
Unfortunately, the indelible mark of Yoshida’s false testimony cemented its way in to history. His accounts were used in various independent studies and publications, even used in the UN Human Rights Commission Report of 1993, despite the official redaction by the Japanese newspaper.
Implications for International Relations
Since, several prominent members of society have strongly advocated against the renegotiation of the 2015 Comfort Women agreement. This is under the premise that Japan has offered several apologies and completed many rounds of reparations regarding their dispute. Renegotiating the 2015 comfort women deal is, in fact, highly undesirable and sets a dangerous precedent for countries conducting international relations.
South Korea claims the basis for wanting to renegotiate the treaty was the previous administrations lack of inclusion with former comfort women in the negotiations. Although unfortunate, a high-level international treaty as such cannot be “renegotiated” each time a new administration comes in to office. While President Moon Jae-in has good intentions in his pressure to unravel the deal, the delicate balance of peace between countries remains taut and is not in the general best interest of international relations to reopen an agreed-upon treaty such as the 2015 Comfort Women agreement.