Why Is Obama Getting Involved with the Comfort Women Issue?

On Dec. 28, 2015, Seoul and Tokyo made a “final and irreversible” deal that will require Japan to neither acknowledge its liability over the comfort women issue nor make a clear expression of apology. The surviving comfort women and the nongovernmental organizations that support them expressed their disapproval, demanding a renegotiation of the deal. What fueled the public anger even more was a report from the Japanese media that Japan will pay 1 billion yen (approximately $8,418,930) to the survivors, on the condition the “Statue of the Girl” will be removed from in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. The public opposition to the deal and the demands for renegotiation spread like wildfire among the opposition in the National Assembly, religious communities, colleges and even overseas Korean communities. The Chinese media reported on the public’s cold stares toward this deal.

While the Park Geun-hye administration is facing a backlash, the American government praised the deal. As soon as it was announced, the secretary of state and the White House national security advisor could not wait to start the celebration. They delivered speeches with generic lines like “we welcome the agreements made by both governments in facing such controversial subjects as the comfort women issue.”* On Jan. 7, President Obama joined the celebration. While on the phone with President Park to discuss North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, he “commended two of the [U.S.’s] most important allies for having the courage and vision to forge a lasting settlement to this difficult issue.”

And furthermore, Obama reaffirmed that “the U.S. will actively support the enactment of the settlement. In addition, this settlement will undoubtedly strengthen the South Korea-Japan-U.S. capacity to meet the challenges posed by North Korea’s nuclear tests,” he said.* Just how is this “comfort women settlement” a just settlement? And how will it strengthen the South Korea-Japan-U.S. capacity to react to North Korea’s nuclear threat? And what on earth did Obama mean when he said the U.S. will support the steps of South Korea and Japan to implement the settlement?

During a phone call with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, Obama said, “Thanks to the settlement on the comfort women issue, the South Korea-U.S.-Japan coalition can collectively voice its concerns in the United Nations.”** Then, Abe revealed something shocking. He said: “I thank the United States for its consideration and cooperation toward settling the issue definitively and irreversibly.” Thank the United States for its consideration and cooperation? Is he saying the U.S. pulled strings behind the scenes to ensure an outcome favorable to Japan? At this point the story takes a darker turn – the negotiation may have been conducted by South Korea and Japan, but in reality, it was executed under the plans and orders of the United States.

So why did the U.S. become involved in the comfort women issue? Undoubtedly, their involvement probably had something to do with the United States’ China policy, which mandates a watchful eye on China, which is becoming an economic and military superpower. China is challenging the U.S. hegemony in East Asia, established after World War II, which the U.S. is struggling with due to its “fiscal cliff.” To remedy that, the U.S. turns a blind eye to Japan’s militarism*** and is even going as far as to guarantee the right of Japan’s Self Defense Force to dispatch forces overseas, strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance. The U.S.-South Korea alliance is just a bundled deal included in this strategy. The one big obstacle to this plan was the comfort women issue, so the U.S., anxiously aware of the lack of progress, encouraged the settlement between South Korea and Japan. China’s cynicism toward South Korea and its decision is quite unsurprising considering the direction in which the U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance is heading.

The Park administration’s rationalization for hastily wrapping up the comfort women issue was that it did not want to miss out on the 50th anniversary of the South Korea-Japan diplomatic normalization and its significance. But in truth, the same rationale was previously expressed by an American high-ranking official. Dec. 16, 2015, 12 days before the settlement was reached, the White House’s top adviser on Asia policy noted that “cooperation between the U.S., Japan and South Korea is very important, so we encouraged each party to exercise flexibility and courage to take a forward-looking approach when dealing with historic issues.”* You’ve got to give it to the Americans. They can be rather honest from time to time.

Thanks to efforts by the Roh Moo-hyun administration, wartime operational control was supposed to be returned to South Korea on April 17, 2012. Then, the Lee Myung-bak administration postponed the scheduled return to the end of 2015, and the Park Geun-hye administration then postponed the discussion over the return – not the return itself – until 2022. I am unnerved to see the most sensitive, historical dispute between South Korea and Japan — an issue that is also a matter of dignity for the people of South Korea – being swept away as part of America’s China policy. It makes me wonder if delegating military sovereignty to the U.S. has compromised our diplomatic sovereignty as well. Our country’s status is falling low.

*Editor’s note: This quote, although accurately translated, could not be independently verified.

**Translator’s note: This quote, although accurately translated, could not be exactly verified. The text closest to delivering a similar opinion is Juliet Eilperin’s Washington Post article Agreement on ‘Comfort Women’ Offers Strategic Benefit to U.S. in Asia-Pacific.

***Translator’s note: The original text is: “Japan’s inclination to rightist movement.”

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