Pacific Problems
The “Comfort Women” Backlash

After South Korea and Japan reached a landmark agreement on the contentious “comfort women” dispute last December, we applauded both sides but worried that many South Koreans wouldn’t be thrilled with their politicians. Writing for Nippon.com, Roh Daniel reports that some of our fears have come to pass:

It was only natural that South Korea’s civil society, left-leaning citizens’ groups and scholars in particular, would react against the sudden agreement between Seoul and Tokyo. South Koreans refer to this reaction as a “back blast”—the backward blast of air that occurs when a piece of artillery is fired.

One concrete example of this fierce reaction was an emergency discussion held at the National Assembly Members’ Office Building in Seoul on January 5. The session was organized by four groups, including the Korean Council and a lawyers’ organization. Participants, who included activists, academics, and lawyers, labeled the December 28 agreement a collusive pact that disregards historical justice, and they condemned the declaration of a “final and irreversible” settlement as an unconstitutional political act. This sort of rhetoric is sure to spread like wildfire.

Some people in Japan will probably complain that the South Koreans are again moving the goalposts. But this is not something that the authorities in Seoul, particularly those handling foreign affairs, are doing deliberately. The heart of the problem is that the government has been unable so far to produce a national consensus in the face of the sharp division in public opinion. President Park’s ability to achieve such a consensus before long will determine South Korea’s standing in the international community.

The deal included a formal apology and an $8.3 million payment, what amounts to a rounding error for a government budget the size of Japan’s. While that made the arrangement more palatable in Tokyo, it is causing real problems in South Korea.

Controversies dating back decades don’t simply get solved overnight. Japan and South Korea have never really gotten along except insofar as they have to. Indeed, the fact that they even made a deal at all speaks far more to how much the governments fear Beijing than it does to warming South Korean and Japanese attitudes towards one another.

Media observers have a strange tendency to under-appreciate the deep roots of many of the world’s most entrenched conflicts. From the Middle East to the South China Sea to Japanese reparations for World War II, the world’s most contentious issues can rarely be easily solved by clear-headed actors who put aside their grievances for the sake of some enlightened conception of self-interest. And even when agreements are reached, they rarely satisfy everyone and often cause further problems. We hope that South Korea’s leaders can manage to placate their constituents, but we’re not necessarily holding our breath.

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