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The Politics of the “Comfort Women” Deal

The comfort women are in their 90s now but it is not their increasing frailty that led to the “agreement’’ between Seoul and Tokyo. The timing concerned an event held in Beijing on Sept 3. China’s “Victory over Fascism’’ military parade which marked the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII had one telling moment that made strategists in Washington sit up and take notice. The attendance of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, the only major US ally to turn up, prodded Washington to lean on Japan and Seoul to get an agreement. The pivot, a mild word for what is a major US military redeployment, depends on the pillar of Japan and South Korea cooperating. The plight of the former sex slaves, which Japan euphemistically calls the ianfu, or comfort women, is the main thorn in the side of relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

At a joint news conference in Seoul on Monday, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would be offering an apology to the former “comfort women” and that Tokyo will finance a 1 billion yen aid fund for the aging survivors that is to be set up by South Korea.

But Japan has no plans to acknowledge legal responsibility or pay reparations or government compensation. Payment will be made through a government-backed fund and be classified as “humanitarian”. A classification necessary to appease the right-wing in Japan who deny that forced sexual slavery took place.

Kishida said that Tokyo doesn’t consider the 1 billion yen on offer as compensation, but “a project to relieve emotional scars and provide healing for the victims.’’

It will include medical services, health checks and other support for the women, he said.

But even that sum, 1 billion yen (roughly $8 million), seems paltry. Tokyo is hosting the 2020 Olympics and the original budget was 300 billion yen. This now looks set to spiral up to four or five times the estimate according to Japanese media.

Compensation between the countries, Kishida insisted, had been settled by a 1965 treaty that restored diplomatic ties and was accompanied by more than $800 million in economic aid and loans from Tokyo to Seoul.

Even the name of the fund has not been decided on. Tokyo favors the word “atonement,” but Seoul wants “compensation.”

“An act by a government using the state budget can be interpreted as an act accompanied by legal responsibility,” Lee Won-deok, director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, was quoted as saying in the weekend edition of the Korean Joongang Daily.

“If the money is not clearly labeled as reparations, the Japanese government can explain to rightists in the country that it was providing humanitarian assistance to the victims because there was a shortcoming after the 1965 settlement,” Lee said. “A gray area can be created to allow Seoul and Tokyo to interpret the measure the way each needs.”

Neither would the fund be completely new but would be based on the now-defunct Asian Women’s Fund, which was a pool of private donations that was set up at Tokyo’s initiative in 1995 and lasted through 2007. Again, no direct government involvement.

And the sound of silence? Part of this agreement stipulates that Seoul must never critically mention the fate of comfort women in dealings with Japan in any official capacity.

Article 3 of the agreement states:

The Government of the ROK (Republic of Korea), together with the Government of Japan, will refrain from accusing or criticizing each other regarding this issue in the international community, including at the United Nations…

While this deal concerns Japan and South Korea, the Japanese imperial army also captured women in China and other countries.

Zhang Xiantu died in November in China’s Shanxi province. She was the daughter of a landowner and came from a moderately well-off background. Her feet were broken and bound when she was a little girl. A few months after she was married, the Japanese came to her village. She was unable to run because of the state of her feet. She was raped and tortured by the soldiers in the spring of 1942.

While any measure that brings solace to the women in their final years should be welcomed, it is not simply, and never was, a question of money. A great wrong was done and this has yet to be fully acknowledged.

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Tom Clifford is a freelance journalist and can be reached at: cliffordtomsan@hotmail.com.

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