Speaking Of Asia

Looking beyond the comfort women

South Korea and Japan need to bury old hatchets so as to deal with current threats together

Anyone who's passed the Japanese Embassy in Seoul would not have missed the poignant statue of the seated woman across the road, staring straight ahead, hands in lap. The still figure is the perennial reminder, embarrassing to Japan, of the mass rape it conducted on Korean women by herding thousands of them into brothels for the pleasure and sexual release of its occupying army when it colonised Korea between 1910 and 1945, when World War II ended.

These days, as the winds blowing down from Siberia chill their national capital, an increasing number of South Koreans are keeping vigil alongside the statue, ignoring the powdery snow and the sleet. Some days the sculpture, put up a few years ago by a civic group called the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan, is touchingly draped with a cardigan placed around the shoulders. Most times, there is a knitted woollen scarf around the neck. It is a rare person who can gaze upon the sight and not feel a lump in his throat.

Now, a sister statue that was installed two weeks ago outside the Japanese consulate in Busan, South Korea's second largest city, by the Committee of Youth for Erecting a Peace Monument, another non-governmental organisation, has opened a massive fault line in the country's ties with Japan. The Busan authorities initially had the statue removed but Japanese Defence Minister Tomomi Inada - a woman - then visited the Yasukuni Shrine memorial for Japan's war heroes. Seoul, which described Ms Inada's shrine visit as "deplorable", looked the other way as the statue was reinstalled.

This has fuelled outrage in Japan, whose Prime Minister Shinzo Abe subsequently ordered his top diplomats in Seoul and Busan to return home. Tokyo also threatened to scrap talks on a currency swop agreement meant to protect the Korean won from sharp, destabilising swings.


Japanese, justifiably perhaps, are feeling both angered and betrayed at the unexpected escalation of an issue from their shameful past they thought they'd successfully buried. A year ago, the two had agreed to what was described as a "final and irrevocable settlement" by which Japan apologised for the treatment of the comfort women and paid a final indemnity to the surviving victims, who number less than 50.


However, the deal had never been too popular in Korea. Some of the surviving comfort women declined the money. Evidence of public sentiment, if needed, was on show two months after the agreement when, Spirits' Homecoming, a movie on the suffering endured by comfort women during the Occupation, opened as a box-office hit, drawing 1.7 million viewers in its first week. Good as the movie was, the unpopular settlement had perhaps served as a catalyst for its popularity. Indeed, short of funds, it had taken the film-maker Cho Jung Rae nearly 14 years to make the movie and ultimately it was made with small donations from 75,000 people. Now, it was as though Koreans suddenly felt obliged to register their sadness over the past.

Not surprisingly, the comfort woman statue in Busan was put up on Dec 28, the first anniversary of the "final settlement".

The Busan statue may go in the weeks to come but the one in Seoul will be less easy to remove, especially since South Korea is approaching fresh elections. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of volunteers keeping vigil beside it have only gone up. Others are donating money and meal coupons for volunteers to eat in nearby restaurants and stay warm in the cold.

This could mean the settlement has to be put aside for all practical purposes, even as Tokyo insists that Seoul honour its part of the bargain, including a promise to have the offending statue removed. President Park Geun Hye, even when she was firmly in power, never did so. Now that she has been paralysed by nepotism charges and suspended from official duties, there is even less she can do. A change of government will not help. Opposition parties were against it in the first place. Now, scenting power, they are even less in a mood to oblige Japan.


The issue of the statue comes at a time when South Korean touchiness had been rising anyway for a variety of reasons. Youth unemployment is emerging as a major worry even as the population is swiftly ageing. Growth has been slowing, in part thanks to China making more sophisticated goods at home and buying less abroad, crimping Korean exports. Beijing is also pressuring Seoul on its security arrangements, particularly the stationing of the US-made Thaad missile system on its soil, which China sees as destabilising the situation. Both South Korea and Japan are treaty allies of the United States.

Not so long ago, Samsung and other companies used to cast an envious eye at Japan's reputation for quality and reliability and dreamed of passing their neighbour. Having now done so with their first-rate televisions, refrigerators, cars and ships, the scandals at the Blue House erupted in a year when Samsung, perhaps its best known chaebol, suffered the deep embarrassment of its latest smartphones being declared unsafe and ultimately, withdrawn. How would it feel if you were a Korean travelling somewhere and the pre-flight announcement by the stewardess explicitly says your nation's most famous export is banned on board? It is not surprising that suddenly, old wounds feel more raw than they ought to.

While one feels sorry for Mr Abe - this after all was the man who had taken a big risk with his apology, having questioned a landmark 1993 Japanese apology over the issue before taking office - he needs to act with the broader picture in mind. His tough stance today is due partly to criticism from his conservative supporters of the settlement he reached with Ms Park.

Now that a new year has dawned upon the Miracle on the Han River, the envoys in Seoul and Busan he recalled must be sent back. Given the alarming developments in North Korea, and the unpredictable prospects of a Donald Trump presidency in the US, both Japan and South Korea, as treaty allies of Washington, have plenty to worry about. The priority for both then is to build cooperation, particularly in the field of sharing intelligence, and perhaps even integrate missile systems without delay.

South Korea's Acting President Hwang Kyo Ahn, a key backer of Ms Park, has called for restraint. It would help all if he could have at least the offending statue in Busan withdrawn, even if the original "peace monument", as South Korea calls the statues, has to stay a while longer. Despite what public opinion polls may say, the fact is that among all the indignities a society can inflict upon another, the most painful, worse than even conquest, is the violation of women. But, given the times North-east Asia is passing through, there are plenty of good reasons for some old hatchets to be buried.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2017, with the headline Looking beyond the comfort women. Subscribe