The presidency of Donald Trump has triggered an unprecedented collapse of Brand America and sets the bar exceedingly low for global leaders. Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump’s closest if not only friend among them, deserves special scrutiny for his recent refusal to apologize to South Korea over the horrors endured by tens of thousands of women treated as sex slaves by the Japanese military during the 1930s and 1940s.
There is a “been there, done that” aspect of South Korean-Japanese relations. These frenemies have never reached a mutually acceptable understanding of their shared past. Today true reconciliation has become even more elusive due to democratization in South Korea. Until the 1990s, South Korean authoritarian governments kept history caged, avoiding historical controversies in order to maintain good relations with Tokyo, which supplied them with significant economic assistance in tacit compensation for the indignities and abuses suffered under Japanese colonial rule (from 1910 to 1945). But the advent of freely elected governments unleashed smoldering popular resentments, and Koreans demanded recognition of what they endured. Politicians responded by tapping into these unresolved grievances for political gain.
Japan has changed, too. The rise of revisionists such as Abe, who embrace an evasive and exculpatory view of history, complicates Tokyo’s relations with Seoul. Japanese conservatives also play the history card to whip up their base, and Abe has been at the forefront of this movement to restore pride in the nation by whitewashing Japan’s Asian rampage (1931 to 1945) and trying to recast it as a war to liberate Asia from Western imperialism. At least 15 million Asian ghosts haunt that outlandishly rosy reinterpretation.
At the end of 2015, under pressure from Washington to get over history so that the three allies could upgrade ties, Tokyo and Seoul concluded an agreement aimed at resolving the festering “comfort women” issue. Although touted as “final and irreversible,” this diplomatic deceit was doomed not only because the public overwhelmingly rejected it but also because it lacks empathy toward the victims.
Tokyo pledged to pay about $9 million for the benefit of the remaining survivors, who at that time numbered 46, and Seoul agreed not to raise the issue internationally. In addition, South Korea agreed to make efforts to secure the removal of a comfort woman statue erected by civic groups that remains across the street from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The failure to relocate this statue, as well as another installed adjacent to the Japanese Consulate in Busan, has infuriated Japan. Although an explicit quid pro quo is not stipulated, Tokyo disbursed the money in the expectation that Seoul would deliver.
The pact lacks legitimacy, however, because the former comfort women were sidelined from the process. Moreover, Abe failed to make a public apology, only phoning it in to then-President Park Geun-hye. Nobody expected him to pull a Willy Brandt and fall to his knees, but surely the most painful legacy of Japanese colonialism requires a far grander gesture than reports of a private conversation expressing remorse.
Soon after his election last May, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for a review of the agreement. On Dec. 27, 2017, a South Korean government-appointed panel arrived at the following conclusion: “The victim-centered approach, which has been established as an international standard when it comes to the women’s human rights during war, was not sufficiently reflected during the negotiation process.” Indeed, the negotiations were conducted in the shadows, more like a sensitive missile deal than an effort to sincerely address a profound historical injustice.
This is precisely why Moon repeatedly complained that the agreement is flawed in content and process. On Jan. 4, he met with former comfort women and apologized to them for the Park government’s betrayal. Many people around the world, including those in Japan, nod in sympathy with his compassion, something entirely missing in the quid pro quo deal — paying money for silence about a sordid ordeal endured by women intimidated and deceived into working in military brothels.
Early this month, Moon agreed to honor the accord but also urged Abe to do more to settle the matter, including giving a heartfelt apology. On Jan. 12, Abe refused to do so, and Tokyo is standing its legal ground. The Japanese government is furious at Moon for undermining the pact in such a public manner. It comes as little surprise that feuding and mutual recriminations have resumed.
Abe is missing an opportunity to burnish his stature as a statesman. He should work with South Korea to engage in a victim-centered public process that attends to the needs of former comfort women, their relatives and advocates.
More than ever, the international community understands that it has neglected the suffering particular to women in war, establishing new norms for addressing their traumas. Now Japan has a chance to get on the right side of history by showing them the empathy that they and all Koreans deserve and thereby inspire other countries to take the measure of their transgressions. Alas, Abe’s empathy deficit dishonors Japan and its victims while keeping bilateral relations, and the trust crucial to alliance cooperation, on ice.
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan.