Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Comfort Women Deal A Month Later: Nothing New, Still Gross

When news of the latest "Final deal" regarding the Comfort Women came out on December 28, I wasn't as excited as a few of my Facebook friends. Sadly, my initial "Wait and see" reservations proved correct as the story soured faster than milk and pickle juice.

This topic is overwhelming to write about, because writing about any one aspect causes every single other thing to rush out for inclusion as well. It's like drinking a cup of jello: poke. Nothing. Poke. Nothing. Bigger poke. Omygoodnesseverythingiscomingatoncewhatwasithinking? Plus, no matter how carefully I write this piece, everything I omitted for simplicity or brevity will get thrown in my face in the comments anyway. It's daunting, and I'm frustrated at yet another apology doomed to be rejected both by Korea's and Japan's publics, followed by further recriminations, deepening grievance and apology/insincerity fatigue that will make it harder for both sides to offer and accept the next (hopefully final) apology, when or if it ever comes.
More after the break.

In 2013, in a blog post titled "Why Japan Should Not Apologize to Korea," I summarized my basic position on the political incentives of Korea-Japan apologies this way:
As it currently stands, (1) the apology that would be supported by Japan's (voting) public won't wash in Korea; (2) the apology that Korea's public wants wouldn't wash in Japan, and (3) half-assed or qualified apologies make things worse. 
A full apology shouldn't be attempted until those who would reject even that in Korea, or those who would oppose issuing one in Japan, are small enough minorities that they are politically irrelevant or even radioactive - that no politician with their head on straight would see a benefit in aligning with them.
There is no point in adding another Japan apology, that Korea will also reject, to the list of apologies that have already been rejected, and politicians on both sides have big disincentives to do so.
That impasse remains, and the third assertion (half-assed apologies make things worse) is being demonstrated yet again. The incentive not included in the calculation above, giving impetus for this turkey of a deal, is that the USA wants the two countries to play nice. Without that, neither side would have even come to the table.

The deal is a flat-out stinker. Japan gains a lot (a promise to never bring it up ever again? Wow!) All they give up is some chump change for a foundation to provide for the former comfort women. 8 million bucks or so. That's nothing for a national government. Unfortunately, Japan wants to have its cake and eat it too. (With strings attached.)

Having its Cake

Everybody wants to have their cake and eat it too. It's human nature: even I do. For Japan, regarding the Comfort Women, having their cake and eating it too means never hearing about history again and Korea no longer undermining it in the international arena. All without conceding the right to teach a version of history that is actively antagonistic to their neighbors (or at least without being required to make any effort to repudiate that version: ignoring the actual history is probably enough for most people.)

Of course, Korea also wants to have its cake and eat it too. In Korea's case, that means being able to keep the moral high ground of its historical victimization,  unequivocally setting the terms for Japan's apology and perhaps even moving the goalposts for it at will, being allowed to bring it up and embarrass Japan whenever they want but without those accusations hobbling profitable cultural, economic and security exchanges between the countries. Korean politicians want to keep Japan as a whipping post to stir up domestic support and distract from uncomfortable domestic issues, without any diplomatic or other consequences.

However, this deal failed the smell test from the get-go. President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have never been able to sit in a room together without President Obama pulling on their ears like resentful kids. Both countries' people have been decrying the deal: Korea's public, and more importantly, the surviving comfort women, have emphatically not accepted it, and Japan's public have one side complaining "$8 million and another apology is nowhere near enough" and the other side still going "Why are we apologizing at all when we did nothing wrong?" it's a head-scratcher. Even the USA doesn't get what they want, because pretending to play nice isn't a basis for actual improved relations. When President Barack O'Momma pulls the kids' ears and makes them say sorry, everybody knows the kids are going to fight again as soon as mom leaves the room.

The only people who win are those in Japan who now have a leg to stand on when they call on Koreans to quit whining, and those who benefit from public attention in Korea focusing on Japan instead of on Korea's own history issues. (Here's another.) (And let's be honest: some people on that list have a lot to lose if Korean public attention is freed up to look to its own historical sins, and the culprits.)  EDIT: And China. Who always benefits when rival USA's allies can't get along.

Three Assessments

I've thought about the deal a bit, and come up with several takes on the deal. Which one you believe was the case depends on your estimation of Pres. Park Geun-hye, interestingly. Here are the options, from pessimistic to optimistic:

First option: President Park was yet again showing that she is a clumsy, autocratic and tone-deaf head of state. Making a comfort women deal without even talking to the comfort women demonstrates the same top-down headstrong attitude, and the same inability/unwillingness to think about how her actions would  be received as pressing charges on a Japanese journalist for criticizing her, disbanding an entire political party, having the Korean embassy harass a journalist for writing a critical article, or comparing masked protesters to ISIS. She made a deal because she's the boss, and she could if she wanted to, dammit! Given the way she's dealt with critics, the press, and protestors, this view appears to be in character. In this view, the president is also a very poor negotiator, because Korea allowed "final, irreversible" promises into a deal where all Korea got was chump change, and she didn't even recognize hush money when she saw it.

If you think President Park is the kind of chess player who only plays the move right in front of her, this is your assessment of the situation.

Second option: President Park (and maybe also Prime Minister Abe) were astute enough to see two things: that USA really wanted them to at least make a show of getting along, and that their domestic political situations made it impossible for them to actually do it. Therefore, either independently or in collusion, they cobbled together a deal that would convince the USA that they really were trying, with the full knowledge (perhaps even designed so) that both populations would reject the deal upon hearing the details. That they sent their foreign ministers to hammer it out rather than doing it Head-of-State to Head-of-State seems to support this - it makes it easier to disown the deal if they kept it at arms' length. USA is satisfied that at least token effort has been made, the actual situation doesn't change a whit, and polls take as small a hit as possible.

If you think President Park is the kind of chess player who plays two moves ahead, this is your assessment of the situation.

Third option: President Park knew that Korea had gotten as much mileage as it possibly could out of the comfort women dispute at the state level, and from here, continuing to harp on the issue at the UN or other global forums would only create the perception of Korea as a country of whiners who can't forget a grudge, so making "final, irreversible" promises only concedes ground that is no longer strategically useful anyway. However by setting up a foundation to support comfort women, even without official statements to that effect, the Japanese government's actions demonstrate a Japanese legal/moral obligation and responsibility towards the comfort women. That admission cannot be reversed. The cat is out of the bag now: in deed, Japan is officially taking responsibility, no matter what words they say. So... pointing fingers at the UN general assembly is out now, but that's not where the most effective pointing fingers are coming from these days anyway. Scholars, historians, and groups of citizens in both countries and from other countries are carrying the discussion of history forward now, better than Korean politicians ever did or could. Japan, on the other hand, is now positioned as the responsible party, by official admission, thanks to this maneuver. This article is a good explanation of what I mean here.

If you think President Park is the kind of chess player who is willing to sacrifice a good piece to get into a better position, and plays seven moves ahead, this is your assessment. If you believe in the first assessment, this benefit is fortuitous, but merely accidental.

I know which one I think it is.

What do the comfort women want? Fortunately, somebody asked them. According to an article in Counterpunch, they are asking for:
  • Full acknowledgement of the military sexual slavery implemented by the Imperial Armed Forces of Japan between 1932 to 1945
  • Thorough and complete investigation to fully chronicle the scope of the crime
  • Full and ongoing education
  • Building of memorials to commemorate the victims and preserve the history of sexual slavery by the Japanese Military
  • Prosecution of the criminals responsible for the crime
  • Legal and full reparations to all victims
  • Formal, official apology from the National Assembly (Diet) of Japan
But really, before any of these, let's start with, you know, at least being fucking consulted on the war crime where they were the victims. I mean, seriously.

Who was this deal really about?

One commentator said this deal was a government-to-government deal, and as such, this was about the Korea-Japan relationship, and the actual issue of the actual, living, breathing "comfort women" was peripheral to the other interests at hand.

The way that "Comfort Women" were not even consulted during negotiations, brings to mind one important paper I read during graduate school. Here's the citation. Go look it up if you can:

Varga, Aniko. "National Bodies: The 'Comfort Women' Discourse and its Controversies in South Korea" Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism. Vol. 9.2 2009. (287-303)

The basic gist of the paper is that after the "comfort women" went public in the early '90s, their story was very quickly co-opted by the South Korean nation at large, so that rather than being taken as individual survivors of a horrific experience, the "comfort women" became more of a symbol for a national trauma (colonization). That is, instead of "their" (the "comfort women's" private, individual) stories, sex slavery became "our" (the nation at large's public, national) story. The way the story is discussed in the media and by politicians often seems to skip right past the people who actually suffered the atrocity:
the prevalent nationalist ideology has shifted the focus from the concrete issue to a wider and more symbolic level of national suffering, and thus has hindered (if not halted) the progress of the movement, even though the nationalist orientation and the human rights approach have helped gain wide recognition of the issue on national and international levels, respectively. (289)
Making the comfort women a symbol of the nation (in the broadest, most abstract, collective sense possible) meant that every Korean could feel a stake in the issue, which might be good for stirring up outrage and mobilizing people to build statues in parks in New Jersey and San Francisco and hiring out ads in the New York Times, but it tends to drown out the actual voices, wishes, and stories of the real human beings who were ripped from their lives to become sex slaves for Japanese soldiers, leaving them, ironically, once again ignored, even while the entire nation claims to be crying out for justice towards them. (more on page 293):

Precisely here lies the inner contradiction of the nationalist discourse: while the ‘comfort women’, oppressed and fragile, offer an imminent symbol of a similarly defenceless nation battered by the storms of history, their very existence proves an embarrassing counterpoint to the female ideal promoted by the very same nationalist vein.
What happened to the "comfort women" isn't a crime against the entire nation. Colonization was, but let's not mix things together. Especially when one of the things being mixed up involves kidnapping and sex slavery. They deserve control over their own story.

296-297 of the article describes the Asian Women's Fund -- a payout offered in the late 90s to surviving comfort women -- which was offered and rejected at the time. Now, it's ironic that this latest deal looks an awful lot like a payout too, (where the funds are coming from make the case slightly different) but the way it was treated is a sharp reminder of how little say the "comfort women" have in their own story, now that their story has become the story of damaged national pride: a handful of "comfort women" chose to take the money at that time, and they were criticized severely by the Korean public.

What business was it of theirs? The people criticizing them had never been sex slaves! 

Those who took the money were blocked from ever benefiting from money or funds collected in Korea to benefit "comfort women." Korean government payouts were conditional on refusing the Asian Women's Fund money. To sum up: Korea's government and people decided that Japan's offer wasn't good enough, and the "comfort women" were told whether they could accept or refuse the apology on offer in the 90s, and even those who wanted to accept it were browbeaten into refusing or ostracized. (Soh, Chunghee Sarah. 1998. ‘Human Rights and Humanity: the Case of the ‘‘Comfort Women’’’. The ICAS Lectures (no. 98-1204-CSSb). Available at: http://www.icasinc. org/lectures/cssl1998.html is referenced here. More can be read here.) Was the Asian Women's Fund a fully satisfactory way to put the issue to rest? Oh, probably not. But was that worth once again taking away the "comfort women" survivors' options for the sake of a bigger national concern? No.

Regarding this and other incidents, as she approaches her conclusion, Varga writes, "What is most worrying about this nationalist attitude is the complete disregard of the preferences of the individual victims, their right to free choice, agency and personal autonomy. Indeed, the ‘collective identity’ generated through the civil movements and the public discourse has in the end repressed the voice of those it was supposed to represent." (297)

Shinzo Abe's cabinet in a group bonding activity. source
Why am I bringing up this stuff in the midst of a big controversy where (I guess) we're all supposed to circle the wagons and point fingers at the villains, evil Abe and his mustache-twirling cronies? Because "comfort women" survivors continue to be ignored, skipped over, and silenced by their own government, just like it's done before (in 1965 with the normalization treaty when they were ignored, or when Korea's government instructed schools not to release records about the Women's Volunteer Corps, or every other time listed in Vargas 294-95 of South Korea's government suppressing, eliding or ignoring the "comfort women's" story. All the way up to this new deal on December 28 2015.)

...and in the midst of all this ignoring and suppressing... the government also must prosecute a scholar who is writing about the "wrong" version of the narrative they co-opted fair and square! Let's be clear: I'm not defending Park Yu-ha's writing. What I've heard of her version sounds even less accurate to the lived experience of the survivors than the Korean government's "official" "comfort women" narrative, but I haven't read it, so can't say much. Even so, the usual way to deal with bad scholarship is with better scholarship, not through the heavy hand of the law, nor the clumsy hand of populist politics. Accurate history or otherwise, using the law to control how an issue is discussed or to bully scholars makes me very very uncomfortable.

Other than sympathy, support and dignity, the comfort women deserve the truth to be told unflinchingly, no matter who ends up looking bad. The truth is the least we owe them, and narrowing the issue down to one of national pride, and reducing them to symbols, simplifying their story into victims and villains, is just another way of blanching out the fullness of their stories, again robbing them of their dignity, of the humanity that has been denied them so many other times. By negotiating an entire "comfort women" deal on their behalf, without even consulting them, the Korean government has repeated this crime against the dignity of the "comfort women" survivors. Which is in character given its record all the way back to the normalization treaty (read about it at The Metropolitician's blog here), but it's a pretty huge damn shame, not only that it doesn't look like this issue will be resolved before the last survivor has passed on (they're all extremely old now), but also that South Korea is multiplying the "comfort women's" humiliation even now, by continuing to ignore, dismiss, co-opt or misrepresent them and what happened to them, for the petty sake of scoring points against a rival.

If anybody is interested in reading the Varga article, reach out to me and I'll help you get your hands on a copy.

Comments will be tightly moderated. Please be polite and respectful, and keep comments on topic. Thank you.

Finally, for more context, here are some of the online articles I've been reading, and seeing shared, about the whole thing.
The Guardian declares Japan and US winners.
Coverage in Yonhap News
here is the text of the full statement on the agreement

Then the backlash started rolling in:
"Everyone I Know is Appalled by the Comfort Women Agreement"
While Japan was hedging the statements, Korea didn't like how the President went about it
Opposition lawmakers want the deal re-negotiated
Women's groups in Japan don't like the deal.
This article describes the Korea-Japan deal as "Diplomatic Collusion" (one of the best ones to read, too: lots of background)
Tom Coyner's piece is a brief and good summary of the history and the reasons for the backlash. I like the conclusion.
The deal doesn't reflect the will of the comfort women.
It came out that there were strings attached to that foundation money.

Yoshimi Yoshiaki, an important historian of the 'Comfort Women' system, says "Tear it up"

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