Editorial: Government panel reports on review of Kono statement

Efforts must be made to bring about rapprochement

A recent move by the Japanese government could create further friction between Tokyo and Seoul.

A government panel on June 20 reported to the Diet its findings from a review of the so-called Kono statement, which acknowledges that the former Imperial Japanese Army was involved in forcing women to work in Japan’s military brothels during World War II.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that the government will not disavow the statement. But he may have believed that, by re-examining it, he could show consideration for his supporters in Japan who find the statement unacceptable.

However, has Mr. Abe give due thought to how this action will be interpreted overseas? It is clear that the move has made improving relations between Japan and Korea even more difficult.

The Kono statement was issued 21 years ago by then Chief Cabinet Secretary Yohei Kono in connection with the issue of “comfort women.” It acknowledges that the former Imperial Japanese Army was involved in the scheme and it offers an apology, saying that the practice severely violated the honor and dignity of many women.

The central point made in the recent report involves the revelation, aired for the first time, that the statement was written after backstage negotiations between the Japanese and South Korean governments. The report says that the wording regarding the involvement of the military was decided in line with the wishes of the South Korean government. Also, according to the report, evidence was not collected to support the testimonies by former comfort women.

But this does not mean that the significance of the statement has been undercut to any great degree. The interviews with these women were conducted 48 years after the end of the year, so it was difficult to find evidence to support their accounts. Even if there is no hard evidence to show that the military used force to gain the women’s involvement in this scheme, it is beyond all doubt that Japanese militarism trampled on the human rights of Asian people in the past.

But in the eyes of the South Korean government, it is against international good faith that these backstage negotiations have been brought to light. By considering why the Japanese government decided to disclose the behind-the-scene talks, we can discern the government’s political motivations.

One motive is to show that both Japan and South Korea were in agreement about the content of the Kono statement when it was issued. Tokyo is seeking to warn South Korea, where an anti-Japanese movement has recently been gaining momentum through discussions on the Japanese government’s responsibilities based on the statement.

Another intention could be linked to strategic preparations for a possible statement by the prime minister next year, which will mark the 70th year since the end of World War II. Many in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party believe that Mr. Abe will try to put an end to the problems surrounding the perception of history by overwriting the Kono statement based on the recent report.

In any case, this cannot be a strategy for improving bilateral relations. On the contrary, this is an alarming situation, and under such conditions, it will be difficult to formulate future-oriented policies toward Asia or win support from the international community.

There are also aspects of this situation that we hope the South Korean government will consider.

On the same day that the report was issued, the South Korean navy held a live-fire drill off the coast of Takeshima Island in Shimane Prefecture. Conducting a military drill, on top of its control of this island, is a very high-handed act. Seoul is apparently seeking to drum up support from the public by arousing nationalistic feelings, but this tactic is utterly unacceptable.

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between the two nations. But at this important time in history, neither government seems to have the capacity to restore friendly relations with the other.

Japan and South Korea are not just neighboring countries, but also share basic values as partners in security and trade. A rift between the two nations could be taken advantage of by North Korea as it pursues its nuclear ambitions.

It is not easy to break the chain of confrontation and mistrust. Too much ado about the Kono statement, though, will not produce any constructive results. We have no choice but to seek a better way that will lead to rapprochement.

(Originally published on June 22, 2014)