President Lee Myung-bak spent more than half of his summit talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in Kyoto on Sunday with the issue of the World War II “comfort women.” He asked for the Japanese government’s “sincere and courageous efforts” to settle the issue, which has become a major obstacle to the partnership between the two neighbors.
It certainly was extraordinary that the Korean president raised the wartime sex slavery in his conversation with the Japanese head of government for the first time, adding so much emphasis to the subject. Other questions in the bilateral relations such as trade imbalance, the political rights of Korean residents in Japan and a free trade agreement between Korea, Japan and China were pushed aside as Lee pressured Noda to take a positive action on the decades-old issue.
Lee had understandable reasons to be particularly concerned about this question. The 1,000th weekly protest rally by aged Korean women who had been forced into sexual service for the Japanese Imperial Army was held last Wednesday in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Private campaigners installed a bronze statue of a young girl at the place to symbolize innocent femininity crushed by the inhumanity of Imperial Japan.
The day before the demonstration, which had started in 1992 ― skipped only once after the Kobe earthquake and held in silence following the March 11 tsunami ― an 87-year-old former “comfort woman” died. Her death left only 63 alive out of the 234 who had the courage of exposing their unbearable experiences in a government survey. Each time one of those unfortunate women passes away, Koreans, young and old, share deep grief, and public anger grows as the number of survivors is reduced rapidly.
President Lee was also doing his part in accordance with the recent Constitutional Court ruling, which said the government’s inaction on the “comfort women” issue was unconstitutional, as the republic’s basic law obligates the government to do its utmost to protect the human rights of the people. With a little more than one year left in his five-year term, Lee is believed to be devoting his energy to external affairs and the economy, choosing aloofness toward increasingly complicated domestic politics.
In Kyoto, Prime Minister Noda responded only perfunctorily, asking Lee to understand Tokyo’s “legal position” on the issue and its “humanitarian efforts” to resolve it. Japan’s legal position was that all Korean claims were settled by the 1965 rapprochement, which covered private and individual claims. Its humanitarian efforts meant the establishment of the “Asian Women’s Fund” in 1995 to compensate the female victims of the wartime atrocity. The fund, however, was a private project and Japan has never accepted its official responsibility for the “comfort women.”
As we observe the relationships among the three Northeast Asian nations, including China, it is regrettable that their diplomatic concerns have been directed largely to addressing historical issues. While pundits equate Japan, Korea and China in East Asia with Britain, France and Germany in West Europe for their rising stature in the global community, the eastern trio is considered still more preoccupied with the past than their western counterparts. Japan holds the key for the three neighboring countries to free themselves from the shackles.
President Lee was scheduled to go to China next month for his next round of “shuttle diplomacy,” but an incident in the West Sea last week in which a Chinese fisherman killed a Korean Coast Guard officer has affected the plan. Chinese authorities’ audacious reaction to the arrest of the assailant stirred resentment in Seoul but their offer of consultations to find ways of preventing illegal Chinese fishing in Korean waters helped ease this.
Good neighborly partnerships are vital for regional security and mutual economic advancement. Government leaders have a lot to do through diplomatic efforts to create and promote an atmosphere of friendship. They should also exert domestic leadership to prevent an unnecessary flare-up of national sentiments. They are particularly cautioned against deliberately fanning external controversies to seek domestic political gains.
Noda told Lee that his government would muster wisdom to address the “comfort women” issue. What is more important in this matter is the courage to do the right thing against anticipated objections from some of the Japanese people.