Every Wednesday, activists and supporters gather for a rally outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. There, within earshot of Japan’s diplomatic mission, they chant and make speeches calling on Tokyo to more earnestly atone for misdeeds committed during the 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula, in particular, the issue of women who were made to work at front-line brothels for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

This week, in addition to the regular expressions of outrage, they had a cause for celebration.

On Wednesday, the South Korean government announced plans to formally dissolve a foundation to assist the so-called comfort women. The body was set up using funds provided by the Japanese government as part of an agreement the two countries signed in 2015.

The foundation was a cornerstone of the deal that was meant to put to rest an issue the two sides have jousted over for decades, and its dissolution portends an even rockier road ahead for already-fraying relations between Seoul and Tokyo.

Scrapped deal welcomed

“The decision amounts to a recognition by the government that the 2015 deal didn’t adequately reflect the comfort women’s voices, so we welcome the disbandment of the foundation,” said Yoon Meehyang, chair of the Korean Council for Justice and Remembrance, a civic group that represents former comfort women.

“We look forward to working with the Korean government to find a truly lasting solution to the issue,” Yoon told Asia Times on the sidelines of the gathering.

Under the terms of the agreement, Japan issued an apology for the suffering of the women involved and provided 1 billion Yen (around US$8.8 million) to set up the body, called the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, to provide assistance to surviving comfort women, all of whom are elderly, and their descendants.

But even before the ink on that deal was dry, South Korean civic groups began pushing for its nullification on the grounds that the former comfort women did not feel their views were reflected in the terms.

“We decided to disband the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation based on the broad-ranging feedback we gathered under a victim-centered approach,” Minister of Family and Gender Equality Jin Sun-mee was quoted as saying in a press release, adding: “We will move forward to restore the honor and dignity of the comfort women.” 

The deal was made under the South Korean government led by President Park Geun-hye, whose term ended early when she was impeached due to a sprawling corruption scandal. The current president, the left-leaning former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, pledged before taking office to scrap or revise the deal. 

Wednesday’s decision was therefore the culmination of nearly three years of protest and a milestone in a decades-long campaign by some South Koreans.

“This is late, but clearly the right decision,” the left-wing Hankyoreh newspaper editorialized, while calling the foundation’s disbandment “a victory in our people’s battle against the forgetting of history.” 

Broader implications

While providing emotional gratification to some, the decision and its broader implications present another complication to South Korea’s relations with Japan. Those ties, tepid at the best of times, have been on a steeper downhill trajectory since a South Korean court ruled early this month that a Japanese firm must compensate South Korean plaintiffs for unpaid labor during World War II. 

Tokyo expressed regret at the decision, arguing that all colonial-era claims for redress were covered under a treaty the two sides signed in 1965 when they established diplomatic relations. Under that deal, Japan made a one-time payment to South Korea that the government used to establish the infrastructure and industrial base that fueled its economic ascendance in the subsequent decades. 

On Wednesday, Japan wasted no time in expressing dismay with the decision, summoning South Korea’s ambassador to Tokyo to lodge a complaint. Japan’s foreign minister called the decision “unacceptable.” The Japanese government has operated on the premise that the 2015 deal was final, and that no more re-examination of the issue was in store. 

Some Japanese dispute the narrative that the government operated an organized network of brothels where women from Korea and elsewhere in Asia were kidnapped and enslaved, arguing instead that Korean women worked of their own free will as prostitutes. 

The historical record on the comfort women is not beyond reproach; the South Korean media almost uniformly cite a figure of 200,000 women having been forced to work in wartime-era brothels, but the origin of and attribution for this statistic is unclear, and only a few hundred former comfort women have ever officially registered with the South Korean government. 

But in South Korea, expressing skepticism of this historical record is risky business. Park Yuha, a South Korean academic, was convicted on charges of defamation after she wrote in her 2013 book Comfort Women of the Empire that some South Korean women worked willingly with the Japanese, and that there were Korean collaborators who participated in the recruitment of women. 

Working together

While South Korea and Japan are not likely to ever concur on all the details of the historical background, the two governments’ urgent task, for now, is finding a way to work together on issues of mutual interest. Yuji Hosaka, a professor at Sejong University in Seoul, told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper that the decision “will, in the short term, inevitably damage South Korea-Japan relations,” but that South Korea and Japan will likely be able to remain cooperative on the issue of North Korea. 

There remains the question of what to do with the more than $5 million that remains in the foundation’s account, whether Seoul will seek to return that money to Japan or put it to some other use. 

A South Korean ruling party lawmaker earlier argued that the foundation should be disbanded on the grounds that it was doing nothing while employing a staff of five and receiving almost $17,000 per month in government funding. 

An optimistic assessment is that the dissolution provides Japan and South Korea with a clean slate to begin negotiations anew. “If the two sides create a new framework, they can address all the issues of disagreement related to the colonial era,” Hanshin University Professor Ha Jong-moon told the Korea Economic Daily.