On Tuesday, for the first time in two long years, representatives of the Koreas will meet across a polished wood table on the heavily militarized border between North and South. The room in which they’ll sit, in the village of Panmunjom, is the backdrop to numerous Korean action films. For most observers of the region, unnerved by the escalating insults of the Trump era, the talks come as good news.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, an experienced politician and human rights lawyer, campaigned on peaceful relations with Pyongyang and more equitable domestic policies. But since his inauguration in May, after the dramatic impeachment of his predecessor Park Geun-hye, Moon has presided over a government-wide audit, shaking out each ministry like a poorly laundered sheet.
The painful history of Korean “comfort women” may figure into the nuclear standoff with North Korea — seeding tensions between Tokyo and Seoul, while easing relations between the two Koreas.
One result of that process has come to bear not only on domestic politics, but on regional ties as well: The painful history of Korean “comfort women” may figure into the nuclear standoff with Kim Jong Un — seeding tensions between Tokyo and Seoul (and, by extension, between Washington and Seoul), while easing relations between the two Koreas.
In 2015, then-President Park, the daughter of a 1970s military dictator aligned with Tokyo, signed an agreement with Japan intended to extinguish the claims of women victimized during World War II. Then-President Barack Obama praised the deal as a “lasting settlement to this difficult issue,” while North Korea called it a “humiliating” concession to Japan. Historians estimate that some 200,000 women from areas colonized by Tokyo were conscripted as sex slaves by the imperial army. Their stories became known in the early 1990s, when Korean, Filipina, Taiwanese, and Dutch women in their 60s and 70s came forward, despite severe local stigmas, with stomach-turning stories of capture, imprisonment, and daily rape.
Private Japanese charities have since offered compensation, and Japanese officials have tendered vague apologies. But the government has largely maintained that comfort women were sex workers employed in privately owned brothels, brokered by Korean middlemen. Japan has also sent emissaries to oppose the building of small monuments to comfort women — symbolized by a bronze statue of a seated girl — in far-flung Palisades Park, New Jersey, and Glendale, California.
Just before the new year, a South Korean task force reviewing the 2015 deal released its findings. Unbeknownst to the public, Park had, in exchange for a dubiously constituted $8.8 million compensation fund, agreed that the Korean government would free Tokyo of legal liability, dismantle the girl statue in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul (the site of weekly protests), and disavow the term “sex slave.” No comfort women had been consulted.
Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea’s foreign minister, announced that the pact would be carefully reviewed and possibly amended. (It now appears that it will largely remain in place.) She apologized for the “incredible pain” caused to surviving grandmothers and their families, and Moon received eight comfort women to the Blue House, Seoul’s presidential residence, bowing from his waist in respect. Japan was outraged. Any re-evaluation of the agreement, the Japanese foreign minister said, would constitute a betrayal that could undermine regional responses to North Korea.
The U.S. has long tried to soothe relations between South Korea and Japan, its primary allies in Asia. Mintaro Oba, who worked on Northeast Asian affairs in Obama’s State Department, said that the audit of the comfort women deal was concerning at a time when the U.S. needs “Korea and Japan to demonstrate unity and cooperation in the face of the North Korea threat and a rising China.” The comfort women issue is an unusual thread uniting China, South Korea, and North Korea. China called on Japan to proceed responsibly after the task force report was announced; North Korea’s distaste for the 2015 agreement, and Japan in general, are well known.
Despite Moon’s best efforts to pursue a more conciliatory politics, his term to date has been constrained by the uptick in North Korean missile tests and Donald Trump’s tweets.
This year marks the 73rd anniversary of Korean independence from Japan, followed not long after by the Koreas’ fretful separation from each other. In that time, their interests and fates have diverged to the present extreme. Relations worsened under Moon’s two predecessors, who were skeptical of any engagement with the North. And, despite Moon’s best efforts to pursue a more conciliatory politics, his term to date has been constrained by the uptick in North Korean missile tests and Donald Trump’s tweets.
By comparison, the past week has been extraordinary. January began with a rapid exchange of speeches and press briefings delivered by North and South Korean leaders. There was Kim Jong Un, in a gray suit patterned after his grandfather’s, with talk of a doomsday button and mass-produced missiles, but also a wish for “the improvement of inter-Korean relations [as] the starting point for peace.” The Koreas reopened their long-dormant cross-border phone line and agreed to Tuesday’s meeting; more surprising still, the U.S. abided South Korea’s request to postpone joint-military drills until after the upcoming Winter Olympics are held in Pyeongchang.
The Olympics will be, for now, the main subject of conversation between the Koreas. In September, a figure-skating pair from Pyongyang, Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, qualified for the games, but their participation, like all things inter-Korean, must be negotiated. (In 1988, the first time South Korea hosted the Olympics, North Korea was denied the chance to co-host, and boycotted.) More than 75 percent of South Koreans support the inclusion of North Korean athletes in the Olympics.
Nuclear matters will not — and functionally cannot — be discussed. “South Korea understands that it must be in lockstep with the U.S., whether it wants to or not,” said Soojin Park, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former spokesperson for the Ministry of Unification in Seoul. Moon’s progressive agenda makes him vulnerable to accusations of disloyalty to the U.S., especially among those who lived through the Korean War. “There are still a lot of constraints on how far Moon can go before inviting conservative backlash,” said Jenny Town of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. But, she added, there’s also a “feeling that what Trump is doing is pushing us closer to war.”
In a recent speech to an audience of senior citizens, Moon promised to “unify the national discourse” around North Korea. His appeal to older South Koreans might be aided by his fight for the comfort women. Even before the task force made its findings known, the vast majority of the country did not accept the terms of the 2015 deal. Soojin Park says that the South Korean government, though wary of “letting this historical matter poison current international relations,” was obligated to re-examine its pact with Japan. “It’s not possible for the government to simply ignore the comfort women.”
Correction: January 9, 2018, 7:03 a.m.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified the room in which the leaders of North and South Korea would be meeting.