By DANIEL SHIN and ERIC SONG
There is nothing physically imposing about Eva Kohr. Her frail body and sorrowful, tear-laden eyes give the impression that even the smallest breeze can blow her over. Even so, not even the strongest storm of winds could do such a thing: she has already survived the deepest depravities of human immorality. Kohr is a survivor of Auschwitz. From medical experiments to executions, the horrors Kohr endured at the death camp are hard for many to grasp. What is even harder to comprehend is her decision on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz to forgive all Nazis. But this history has a clear parallel to the struggle of the Korean comfort women exploited by the Japanese nearly 60 years ago, and the ongoing issue is perpetuating rocky relations between Korea and Japan.
The parallels to the Nazi genocide exist, but in the Orient, no such exoneration and forgiveness took place. Although time has elapsed since the horrendous experiences of Korean comfort women, the tension between the accusers and defenders has not shown any signs of decline. One look at Yong Soo Lee is all it takes; remnants of Lee’s pain and grief linger on, harbored in the dark shadows that now plague her eyes. Unlike Kohr, Lee refuses to forgive the perpetrators of her suffering, demanding that current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “act like a man and face the truth of the crimes that were done.”
While the issue of comfort women may seem obviously divided into a villain-victim perception, both Japan and Korea play roles in the perpetuation of this conflict. Korea is unable to forgive while Japan seems too willing to forget.
It is difficult to approve the Japanese handling of the situation as politically correct in bridging the gap between the two nations. In 1984, Emperor Hirohito stated the following remark to Korea, “It is indeed regrettable that there was an unfortunate past between us for a period in this century and I believe it should not be repeated again.” A report conducted by the Dong-A Ilbo stated that 97 percent of the 3,000 Koreans sampled felt that the apologies Japan had issued regarding “the annexation and colonization of the Korean Peninsula” were inadequate.
Yet with the historical contention still remaining, Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the ashes of 1,068 Japanese war criminals are held, further seems like a slap in the face to the 52 surviving comfort women. Their responses to his visit, ranging from organized boycotts to open protests, only serve as testaments to contemporary Korea’s obvious displeasure regarding Japan’s recent contentious actions.
A recent sentiment most Koreans is that apologies like these lack sufficient remorse and simply fail to accept responsibility for the depravities that had occurred. In terms of current events, the fact that Abe has yet to deliver a direct and specific apology addressing comfort women only further exacerbates the problem, as there have been accusations that Japan is simply trying stall the debate until all the remaining living comfort women are no longer able to stir up controversy. Japan’s refusal to explicitly express an apology is standing in the way of global negotiations.
However, one must not lose sight of the fact that Korea is just as equally liable for such existing tensions. Korea has already received monetary compensation from Japan in the Treaty of Normalization of 1965. Intended to cover all aspects of Japanese colonial damage including those done to comfort women, the $500 million compensation in the treaty was used by the Chung Hee Park administration to fund conglomerates and rebuild the economy of the impoverished nation instead of going to ameliorating Japanese colonial harm. Because the signing of this treaty made Korea eligible to make any more monetary compensation requests, in a poll collected by the Asahi Shimbum Agency, 71 percent of Japanese feel that it is “not necessary to review compensations for victims of colonial rule,” as these have already been paid off in such treaties.
Yet another point of criticism claims that the Korean government is intentionally harboring anti-Japanese campaigns to sway the public opinion from internal issues. As much as Japan has shirked its responsibility to express an explicit apology, Korean politicians area also at fault for redirecting the sorrow of the comfort women as a means to gain political support. In other words, tactless actions on both sides of the heated controversy are fueling the political tensions that have marked Korea-Japan relations since the end of World War II.
Because both Japan and Korea are responsible for the perpetuation of the problem, it is logical that both countries partake in the necessary steps to remedy the tensions. The Japanese government must issue an apology explicitly addressing Korean comfort women, while Korea needs to handle the issue of the comfort women not as a way to garner political support, but to remind posterity of such atrocities. This mutual concession of both parties of the conflict would not only serve as a key bridge in Korea-Japan relations, but also give the remaining 52 comfort women the respect and dignity that they were stripped of 60 years ago. Let the plight of the Korean comfort women not be forgotten; more importantly, let it not be the cause for further international division.