The historic deal reached by Seoul and Tokyo last month on the so-called 'Comfort Women' issue is an important step forward for the two East Asia neighbours. Such is the symbolism that even in the midst of consultations about Pyongyang’s nuclear test, Barack Obama was keen to extend his congratulations to each country’s leader.
One may as well focus on the symbolism, for the actual terms of the agreement don’t amount to much. They include an apology to South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se from his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida, later reiterated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to South Korean President Park Geun-hye by telephone, and a 1 billion yen (approximately $11.4 million) compensation fund. In return the South Koreans agreed to consider moving a statue that has long been an irritant to the Japanese, though this has met with opposition in Seoul.
The offending sculpture is a bronze casting of a teenage girl wearing a traditional Hanbok dress with a little bird perched on her shoulder, her brazen stare fixed on the Japanese embassy across the street. She is a potent symbol of the former occupier’s mass violation of Korean womanhood.
She is the focal point for weekly gatherings of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery in Japan and their supporters, who have spent every Wednesday since 1992 demonstrating. Each week they make the same demand: unreserved official acknowledgment and accountability from the Japan for its treatment of either the group members themselves or their relatives. Increasingly it is the latter; a year ago there were 55 surviving comfort women, today there are 46.
This rapidly shrinking group remains, however, determined not to close the book on their story with the contrived end they feel their government has written for them. In a statement issued after the deal was struck a few days after Christmas, the Council described the agreement as 'a diplomatic collusion which betrays the demands from all'.
Amnesty International was similarly underwhelmed. The organisation’s East Asia researcher Hiroka Shoji lamented the absence of the survivors’ voice: 'The women were missing from the negotiation table, and they must not be sold short in a deal that is more about political expediency than justice.'
Seoul has attempted to strike a balance between the pragmatism called for by its present situation and demands for redress for past injustices. In doing so, it may have created a rod for its own back when it comes to the immense social justice challenge of reunification that it is likely to face at some point.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has defied predictions of its imminent demise for the past 25 years. It is, nevertheless, difficult to imagine the regime surviving for another 25. In 2014 we gained an insight into some of the ‘unspeakable atrocities’ this state carries out against its people through a UN Commission of Inquiry. This raises the question: how would former North Korean camp guards and camp inmates be able to live as members of the same community in a united country?
While this scenario still only exists in the imagination, it seems likely many bureaucrats and functionaries with tainted career histories would need to be retained on the payroll to keep whatever is left of the DPRK in some sort of order and avoid a situation like post-invasion Iraq in 2003. Without firm guarantees of immunity from prosecution or amnesty, however, keeping such people at their posts will be a challenge.
The stakes would be high. The preservation of one of the great achievements of Asia’s economic miracle would hang in the balance. In the 1960s, South Korea had a GDP comparable to Ghana. Today it is not only a manufacturer, but an innovator and brand-maker. It has even acceded to the level of a cultural power with Korean films the source material for Hollywood remakes and K-Pop infiltrating the playlists of the Western generation Y.
The epitome of perverse outcomes would be the reunification of Korea realised as a unity in misery due to socio-economic infection from the North destabilising South Korea. Protecting the gains of South Korea’s development would be a moral as well as political imperative. So too, however, would be justice for individuals.
In choosing to forget the comfort women today, the Republic of Korea is setting a precedent of political amnesia that can only tempt future leaders to falter in the face of coming to terms with the generations of Koreans who have, and are being, subjected to rape and forced abortions in the gulags of the Kim dynasty, and countless other atrocities.
The united Korea that many dream of would include justice for those wronged; justice long-delayed but not denied. The comfort women agreement struck with Japan suggests a different outcome, one where the rulers of a unified state simply make a redaction and call it 'peace'.
Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images