RW Chinnery explains how the “landmark” decision to compensate South Korea’s women abused under Japanese rule is only set to cheat them further.
Korea’s “Comfort Women” may not be ready to forgive, but a decision has been made in higher places to speak for them. As tensions in East Asia continue to rise, a dwindling group of those who survived the bitter depths of what humankind is capable of has seen the book closed on their story, replete with a contrived and hastily written conclusion.
Two weeks ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe phoned South Korean President Park Geun-Hye to reiterate an apology for the sexual slavery inflicted on Korean women during Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. The South Korean Government, for its part, has indicated that it regards this as the final word on the issue.
For South Korea’s 46 remaining so-called Comfort Women however, Abe’s “sincere apologies” and the billion yen (approximately AUD $11.4 million) compensation fund falls far short of acknowledging the horrific degradations they endured. Some also believe their own government has broken off the pursuit of full justice for the sake of political expediency.
Every Wednesday in Seoul, members of the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan and their supporters gather around a statue known as the Pyeonghwa-bi (Peace Monument). It is not as the name might lead one to think, nor is it, in fact, an official or even officially sanctioned monument of any sort. Cast in bronze it consists of two chairs, one vacant, the other occupied by a teenage girl wearing a traditional Hanbok dress. A little bird perches on her shoulder as she stares with an unflinching gaze at the Japanese embassy across the road. She is an eternally silent and infinitely patient ambassador for every girl and woman the Japanese took.
As they have done since 1992, they continue to demonstrate their determination that the issue will not fade from public or official consciousness. Through this vigil they reiterate their demands for official acknowledgment and accountability from the Japanese state for its treatment of them or their relatives. Increasingly it is the latter; nine former Comfort Women passed away in 2015.
“The agreement today is only a diplomatic collusion which betrays the demands from all,” said a statement from the Council. Amnesty International was similarly underwhelmed by the outcome of the negotiations. In a brief statement, the organisation’s East Asia Researcher, Hiroka Shoji, lamented the absence of the survivors’ own 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.”
There can hardly be a flag more representative of its country than the Republic of Korea’s Taegukgi. In its centre is a blue-red roundel which represents the cosmic balance of yin and yang, but could equally be taken as a symbol of the nation’s partition. Surrounding it are four trigrams, each laden with their quarter share in multiple layers of four-fold symbolism including the cardinal directions. These may as well also stand for the delicate quadrilateral balance Seoul must maintain between its sworn enemies in Pyongyang, antagonistic trade partners in Beijing and Tokyo, and sometimes difficult allies in Washington.
There are territorial disputes with both China regarding fishing rights in the Yellow Sea, and Japan over Dokdo/Tokto Island. The Chinese have also been urging Seoul not to allow the deployment of the US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-ballistic missile system while the US has lobbied for South Korea to purchase THAAD themselves. The defence establishment in Seoul, meanwhile, is pushing on with developing an indigenous solution based on Russian technology.
The Americans are heavily invested in both Japan and South Korea who, respectively, host the US military’s largest and third largest permanent overseas contingents. The Obama administration, having made the strategic pivot toward the Asia-Pacific the keystone of its foreign policy (and with a wary eye on China), has of course had a hand in pushing somewhat reluctant allies toward settling their issues. Indeed at the end of his calls to each leader to consult on North Korea’s latest nuclear test, Barack Obama made a point of personally congratulating both Park and Abe on the agreement.
The northern half of the country is occupied by what was once a rival state, now more of a dead conjoined twin that should have rotted away decades ago. Yet it shuffles on through history, depositing poison on the ground under every footfall. Its trail across the landscape of Korean national life will be visible long after the monuments it builds to its own insanity have crumbled to dust.
There is little question that it shall come to pass, but the when and how of the demise of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a prophecy that sits atop a heap of expired deadlines to which I need not add. Rather, I would ask: when the time finally comes to make both camp guards and camp inmates members of the same community together with those already living in the Republic of Korea, will national cohesion or the right of individuals to justice be the priority?
I’ll put it another way: what would the Korean nation-state be prepared to forget in order to make itself whole again?
To understand the importance of the question, one must realise what is at stake. In the 1960s, South Korea had the same GDP as Ghana. Today it is a major manufacturing centre with local R&D producing innovative products sold under globally recognised Korean brands. It is also a nascent cultural power, with K-Horror films remade in Hollywood for American audiences, and K-Pop a global phenomenon in its own right. This has been accomplished at the cost of great sacrifice by two generations of South Koreans. In the mid-part of his career, my father travelled all over East and South East Asia. He was able to observe first-hand the rise of the Asian Tiger economies, following in the footsteps of Japan whose coronation as a new kind of economic superpower then seemed certain.
Having seen so much that would teach even the most diligent of us what it means to toil, one thing he said has always stuck: “You’ve never seen any other people work like the Koreans do.”
If the opportunity for national unification were at hand, what price might a long divided people be willing to pay? Reunification will, of course, be an economic burden that South Korea could not be expected to bear alone, but how many purported criminals will need to be retained on the payroll to keep whatever is left of the DPRK from collapsing into bedlam that would inevitably engulf the South? And for how long?
Could these people be trusted to remain at their posts unless given a blanket amnesty?
While it remains a conservative society with prescriptive gender roles on both sides of the DMZ, there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel for Korean womanhood.
After centuries confined to the role of good wife and mother under Confucian patriarchy, a decade of systematic rape by a vicious “me-too” colonial power, followed by decades more of abuse under not one but two different flavours of dictatorship, as well as contemptible fetishisation by western men, Korean women (in the south, at least) are finally coming to know something of what it is like to be seen as fully human.
The Comfort Women deal with Japan sits ill at ease with this.
As the moment Korea becomes one nation again draws nearer day by day, the precedent it sets has the potential to undercut prospects of justice for crimes happening today. Will this curtain of amnesia that is being drawn across the lives of the women outraged by the Japanese be extended to the generations of Korean women who were, and are right now as of this moment, subjected to rape and forced abortions in the gulags of Kim Jong-un, his father, and grandfather?
Japan and South Korea have, it seems, finally settled one of the most fraught issues of their difficult relationship by choosing to ignore it, and thusly those who suffered, forevermore. Korea may yet choose to build a future union on a foundation of uncompromising justice, but, history being the bastard thing it is, one is apt to fear that they shall make a redaction and call it “peace.”