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Japan – South Korea: will the issue of wartime sex slaves ever be resolved?

On December 28, South Korea and Japan reached an agreement on the controversial issue of “comfort women.” Japan apologised and promised to pay $8.3 million in compensation to the remaining 46 “comfort women.”  However, “comfort women” is a euphemism that has been used by the Japanese government to designate the 50,000 to 200,000 women from South Korea but also from Taiwan, China and the Philippines, who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army.

To procure its army with these sexual slaves, Japan, according to a 1996 United Nations report, targeted schools and abducted schoolgirls aged between 13 and 18.

The practice of using sex slaves accrued during the war between China and Japan in 1932. The Japanese Department of War, in a directive it issued in 1938, justified using sex slaves as a way of “boosting the spirits of the troops, keep law and order and prevent venereal disease.” The decision was taken to avoid the embarrassment caused to the Japanese army in the mass rape perpetrated by its soldiers in Nanking in 1937.

Yesterday a deal that seemed all but set in stone started showing cracks, however. Japanese government officials have made it a condition that for the money to be released, a statue to the women erected in front of the Japanese embassy in the South Korean capital city of Seoul had to be removed.

For observers like John Delury, an International Relations expert at Yousei University in Seoul, “if it is true that Abe [the Japanese prime minister] plans to make the donation contingent on removing the statue, this deal looks dead on arrival.”

Indeed, while authorities in South Korea have been measured in their responses, South Korean civil society has refused to consider a deal which for them is “humiliating.”  On Wednesday, in front of the Japanese embassy and around the bronze statue erected in homage to the women forcibly removed from their homes to become sexual slaves, protesters chanted, “Cancel the humiliating agreement.” The group that erected the statue, the Korean Council for Women Drafted for Sexual Slavery by Japan, has threatened to put up more statues if the one outside the embassy is relocated.  What is enraging South Koreans in this matter is the fact that Japan is not doing anything to atone for its colonial past.

In the wake of the deal with South Korea, other nations affected by the issue have asked that compensation also be extended to them.  President Ma of Taiwan has expressed his desire to hold “immediate negotiations” with Japan and hopes “that the Japanese government can do better and take better care of the comfort women’s welfare and dignity.”

For the Chinese foreign ministry, Japan must “accurately face up to its history of aggression.”

Now that the deal with South Korea no longer seems to be such a landmark deal, it remains to be seen whether these other nations will pursue their crimes and how they will do so.

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