Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

The ‘comfort women’ issue after the fall of Park Geun-hye

Reading Time: 4 mins
A statue symbolising comfort women is seen during a weekly anti-Japan rally in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea, 30 December, 2015. (Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji).

In Brief

The demise of Park Geun-hye’s presidency since October 2016 due to the ‘Choi Soon-sil affair’ is an astonishing development in South Korean politics. Many Korea-friendly Japanese have watched it with a sense of concern


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

, hoping that the South Korean people would find a way to overcome their present difficulties and come back to Northeast Asian politics with invigorated energy.

But when Park’s demise resulted in denial of all that she had achieved as president, the ‘comfort women’ agreement her government reached with Japan in December 2015 became an easy target for attacking the regime. The once domestic affair began to take on an international dimension.

The Japanese government and public in general stayed calm as the ‘comfort women’ issue again returned to the realm of presidential election campaign debates. But when a new statue of a comfort woman was erected in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan in response to growing South Korean popular emotion, the Japanese government took countermeasures including recalling the Japanese Ambassador to South Korea, Yasumasa Nagamine, from Seoul on 9 January 2017.

Reactions from the Japanese media to the government’s response have either been open support or tacit approval, with very little objection. But this is a situation that requires sober thinking.

On the Japanese side, there is a legitimate expectation that the agreement reached in December 2015 — after much difficulty and comprise from both sides — should be respected by both Seoul and Tokyo. At the same time, Japan must recognise that the agreement is not an end-point but a starting point. There must not be any illusion that the agreement can alter Japan’s fundamental position as perpetrator or that Japan would be free to forget this episode of its history.

In that context, the Japanese government should reaffirm the best part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s August 2015 statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Namely, that: ‘We must not let our… [future] generations… be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future’.

This statement requires Japanese remembrance and humility after actions were taken based on the December 2015 agreement.

The erection of the comfort woman statue is a relatively minor issue in the ‘peace and dignity’ of a foreign mission’s working environment under Article 22 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Yet it has now been inflated to a significant issue of popular and national emotion. In this period of political turmoil the South Korean government does not seem to have the managerial capacity to implement their commitment to preserve the Japanese mission’s ‘peace and dignity’. There does not seem to be any way out at this point.

Throughout this difficult situation Ambassador Nagamine has remained in Japan after Abe recalled him. The Ambassador’s presence in Seoul and the full-scale and careful activities of the Japanese Embassy at such a time of political crisis should be the first measure to minimise any future damage between the two countries. The Abe government should find an appropriate occasion to send Nagamine back to his mission.

On the South Korean side, the next president — now likely to come from an opposition party — should respect the agreement Park made in December 2015. It is going to become critically important that international opinion sides with this view.

There are already some encouraging reports from South Korea, heralding voices of reason. On 13 January, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se stated at a parliamentary hearing that, ‘In the international community, it is generally considered undesirable to establish certain facilities or statues in front of diplomatic and consulate offices…Our government is not against the instalment of a girl statue…but I think we need to pool our wisdom on the issue of location’.

On 25 January, the Seoul Eastern District Court served a ‘not guilty’ verdict to Professor Park Yu-ha of Sejong University in a criminal case of defamation against former comfort women for her book Comfort Women of the Empire. But the prosecution appealed the case to a higher court the next day. In Japan, there was unanimous support for this verdict. The Asahi Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun newspapers, which are usually divided on the ‘comfort women’ issue, both praised the verdict.

Following her verdict, Park Yu-ha remarked that: ‘Japan–Korea relations around comfort women are at their nadir today…from autumn last year many problems related to the government or universities have been revealed that require change. My tribunal might become a symbolic incident for this ‘change’ in South Korea. If that comes true I will cherish this sign and let it transform into a wider torrent of “change” in our society’.

Let us hope so.

Kazuhiko Togo is Director of the Institute of World Affairs and Professor of international politics, Kyoto Sangyo University. He was formerly the Japanese ambassador to the Netherlands.


2 responses to “The ‘comfort women’ issue after the fall of Park Geun-hye”

  1. Bad relations are a state of normalcy between Japan and South Korea. It is long overdue that the Japanese government should take that as normal.

    As for the comfort women, some details are available at the followin address:

    There were about fifty thousand South Korean comfort women who were engaged in prostitution with soldiers during the Korean war. They were referred to as Yankee Princess, Yankee Whore and UN madam. Their treatment was hideous.

    Rapes in South Korea are forty times as frequent as in Japan today, according to a South Korean, now a naturalised Japanese professor(from my comment, American Humanism, on the Chinese Comfort women, amazon usa). The frequency is a little bit higher in South Korea than in the United States, but one big difference is South Korean criminals usually get away with very light sentences according to Sonfa Oh, the South Korean Japanese professor.

    “By this standard, the best colonial master of all time has been Japan, for no ex-colonies have done so well as(South) Korea and Taiwan…the postcolonial success also testifies to the colonial legacy: the ecnonomic rationality of the Japanese administration, which undertook in the colonies “the superbly successful modernization effort which Japan itself had undertaken…The world belongs to those with a clear conscience, something Japan has had in near-unamious abundance (David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations).”

    The Korean population which had been stagnant almost doubled during the thirty-five years from 1910~1945. The railways extended hundreds fold. Elementary education spread and most Koreans learned to read the Hangul alphabet which had been invented several hunderd years before. More boys and even girls began to atttend junior high school. Seoul (Imperial) University was established. Several years ago two Japanese graduates from Nagoya (Imperial) University were awarded the Nobel Prize for physics. Seoul University was set up earlier than Nagoya. Torture was abolished except flogging, but “Flogging was refined so that women and children and the mentally disabled could not be punished by it. It was altogether banned in 1920…Local government was built up from scratch…The Koreans often say that the mountains are bare of trees because Japan cut down all the trees. The opposite is true. The forests were destroyed by currupt Yi dynasty officials. Under the above industrial encouragement, forestry seedling stations were established at the local level throughout Korea (Max von Shuler, An American Speaks The Japanese History That Some Want Hidden).” North Korea and Manchuria were the best industrilised part in all East Asia except Japan in 1945, and it was why Kim Il Son and Mao Zedong could fight the Korean War.

  2. I have to wonder if PM Abe’s response to an additional statue being placed in Busan indicates that he really is less than wholeheartedly endorsing the need to ‘take responsibility’ for Japan’s actions with the Comfort Women. Yes, this is a provocation. But Abe should realize that these kinds of provocations are part and parcel of accepting responsibility for the misdeeds of one’s forefathers. Recalling the Ambassador and Consul General shows a lack of tolerance. Not returning these key personnel to the ROK fuels the conflict rather than helps resolve it….especially in the context of all the other political turmoil which the ROK is going through right now.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.