Kim Bok-dong and Kihl Wan-ok, two wizened octogenarian women, do not look as if they could pose much of a threat to US grand strategy in the Pacific. Nor do they intend to do so.
But as President Obama tries to put his “pivot to Asia” into effect, making the region key to his foreign policy by directing more military forces and diplomatic efforts there, he has hit a snag: the leaders of Washington’s two biggest allies in Asia, the nations that should be the twin pillars of Mr. Obama’s policy – Japan and South Korea – are barely talking to one another.
And in large part that is because of a few dozen old Korean ladies like Ms. Kim and Ms. Kihl.
They were forcibly recruited by the Japanese army during the Second World War as sex slaves, and they are demanding an apology and compensation from the Japanese government. Tokyo insists it owes the so called “comfort women” nothing.
“Japan has leveled insults at them rather than offering an apology,” South Korean President Park Gyeun-hye told visiting US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last month.
“I know Japan is an important country to cooperate with for peace and stability in Northeast Asia…but trust has not been established.”
Some people involved in the issue worry that as the handful of surviving victims reach the end of their lives, the time for a change of heart from Japan is running out. “And if they don’t resolve this, it will continue to weigh on our relationship” into the future, says Yoon Mee-hyang, an activist with the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan.
Historical grievances relating to Japan’s behavior towards its neighbors during World War II have long dogged Tokyo’s relations with China as well as South Korea. Neither feel Japan has shown enough contrition for its war crimes.
The abuse of “comfort women” has proved a particularly painful memory, not least because for nearly half a century it was repressed. Only in 1990 did the first South Korean women lift the veil of shame they had drawn over Japan’s forcible recruitment of an estimated 200,000 young women and girls to serve in military brothels.
Just 56 of the 239 women who publicly acknowledged their experiences are still alive.
The controversy has grown since Shinzo Abe became Japanese prime minister last February. Six years ago, during his first term as prime minister, he argued that there was no evidence that any of the “comfort women” had been coerced into prostitution. That contradicted the earlier finding of an official Japanese commission, and caused an outcry around Asia.
Though Mr. Abe has kept quiet this year, “I think he still believes that,” says Seo Hyun-ju, an expert in the “comfort women” issue at the Northeast Asian History Foundation, a government-funded think tank in Seoul.
Another prominent nationalist Japanese politician, Toru Hashimoto, the mayor of Osaka, earlier this year called the “comfort women” system “necessary,” and the government spokesman did not disown the comment.
“These continuing provocations just fuel the fire,” says Ms. Yoon. “They make people here furious and the government cannot ignore them.”
A poll earlier this year by a Japanese policy think tank, Genron NPO, found that 76.6 percent of South Koreans had an “unfavorable” or “relatively unfavorable” impression of Japan, and that for 77 percent of them that was because of Tokyo’s “inadequate repentance over the history of its invasion.”
“Japan’s apology should be sincere and true and come from the bottom of their hearts,” says Yoon Chang-mee, an elegantly dressed woman attending one of the weekly demonstrations outside the Japanese embassy.
Held each Wednesday at noon, the protests generally attract a couple of hundred supporters – largely young people – who gather round whichever of the increasingly frail victims feels strong enough to attend. For an hour or so they listen to speeches and songs and chant “Just Do It” at the red brick embassy across the road.
The embassy’s blinds, however, remain drawn.
Time running out?
Public interest in the fate of the “comfort women” has surged, activists say, since a Constitutional Court ruling two years ago that the South Korean government was obliged to be more diplomatically active on behalf of the victims to secure an apology and compensation.
The government’s passivity, the court found, was a violation of the women’s human rights.
Yoon Mee-hyang, who leads the Wednesday demonstrations, says the government’s efforts are still “insufficient’ and Ms. Kim agrees. “They shouldn’t leave us old women to do all this,” she sniffs. “They should be doing more.”
Seoul has tried repeatedly to engage Tokyo in talks, says Dr. Seo, but the Japanese authorities insist that a 1965 peace treaty ruled out any subsequent reparations and that they are not legally obliged to compensate the “comfort women.” South Korean officials argue that the fate of the women was never discussed during negotiations for the 1965 treaty and that it should be addressed now.
Japan’s refusal to reconsider its position has fueled widespread resentment in South Korea. A planned treaty allowing Tokyo and Seoul to share military information was torpedoed at the last minute in 2012 in the face of public opposition here. The Japanese government has also lodged their own complaints about a statue of a comfort woman built directly across the street from the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
“The whole Korean citizenry is very upset” by the “comfort women” issue, President Park told Mr. Hagel. “Relations with Japan are not a matter of summits; this is a problem that needs to be solved with the Korean people.”
But the time for apologies and compensation is running out, as the 2012 court ruling warned: “if there is an additional delay in time, it may be permanently impossible to do justice to history and recover the victims’ dignity and value as human beings through settlement of claims,” the court found.
“If there is no sincere apology or compensation by the time the last ‘comfort woman’ dies, normalization of diplomatic relations will become very difficult,” says Seo. “Public opinion demands that this issue be fully resolved before there is any real cooperation with Japan.”