Among the myriad 'history problems' that plague Japan-ROK relations, the comfort women issue has been the major stumbling block. Since its emergence on the diplomatic agenda in the 1990s, it has manifested as a constant source of friction, often times dominated the agenda of summit meetings and hindered bilateral cooperation more generally.

The Japanese Government thus sent ripples of relief throughout international policy circles when it proffered a sum of US$8.3 million to Seoul in December 2015; the intent was that this be passed down to the victims as an expression of Tokyo's 'deep responsibility.' And with that, the two governments declared the issue 'settled once and for all.' 

US officials were among the most jubilant at the deal's enactment, hoping it would pave the way for greater strategic cooperation between these two key Asian allies. Obama himself lauded the two countries' leaders for'having the courage and vision to forge a lasting settlement to this difficult issue.'

Yet, can we now rest assured that the major thorn in Japan-Korea relations has finally been removed? Unfortunately, no. If recent history is anything to go by, indeed, it will only be a matter of time before the issue re-emerges as a diplomatic flashpoint. 

Through years of fieldwork on this issue, I have found that the comfort women's main advocacy body — the Korean Council — has proven itself to be highly adept at shaping Tokyo and Seoul's diplomatic handling of the issue. In short, whenever it has deemed Tokyo's overtures toward the victims to be inadequate — as in the 2015 deal — the Korean Council has ensured that the issue remains contentious until resolved in accordance with its demands. 

By staging weekly protests outside of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul since 1992, the Council has made it blatantly clear that nothing less than state compensation will suffice for the comfort women. In addition to being in keeping with international norms for the resolution of historical injustices, the Council believes this to be key in alleviating the victims from the sense of shame that shrouds their plight. As a leader at the organisation relayed to me during an interview, 'comfort women are the victims of a Japanese government policy; they therefore have a right to state compensation.'

Tokyo, however, has continually ignored these demands. Rather than impart funds directly to individual victims from government coffers — which would amount to state compensation — Japanese officials have opted for two alternative 'redress' formulas. The first of these, a 1995 initiative, entailed extending donations from Japanese citizens to comfort women under the auspices of the Asian Women's Fund (AWF). The more recent (2015) policy, involved funnelling funds to the women through the Korean Government. The premise of both of these formulas was the avoidance of setting a legal precedent that could open the floodgates to claims for state compensation by the thousands of other victims of Japan's colonial and wartime policies. 

So as to ensure the first of these attempts — the AWF — would not lead to a diplomatic settlement of the issue, the Korean Council employed a number of pressure tactics to undermine its implementation in the ROK. It directly lobbied Seoul, urging it to reject the AWF. This produced a turnabout in the stance of Korean officials from an initial welcoming of the Fund, to an outright dismissal of it. The Council then embarked on a fundraising campaign to top up an existing domestic fund for the victims, established by the Korean Government, to an amount exceeding that being offered via the AWF. This effectively removed the temptation of the AWF from the victims, and encouraged them to hold out for a better offer from Tokyo. 

How did the Council gain this degree of leverage over Seoul? In essence, it derives its power from a moral authority acquired through acting as the primary advocates of and caregivers to the victims. This authority has enabled the Council to position itself between its government and the victims. In effect, this has diminished Seoul's ability to act independently in its negotiations with Tokyo over what constitutes an adequate settlement for the victims; this has to be conducted, rather, in consultation with the Council. 

As there were no further overtures from Tokyo following the AWF, the Korean Council — in tandem with the comfort women victims — resorted to a new pressure tactic in 2011. They petitioned the Constitutional Court of Korea, a judicial body that functions to protect citizens from having their rights infringed upon by government powers, and filed a case against their own foreign ministry. This manoeuver was not purported to assign culpability to the Korean Government. It was premised on the belief that Tokyo would only change its policy on compensation if it came under real pressure from Seoul. 

Upon hearing the case, the Court delivered a landmark judgment on 30 August 2011: it was unconstitutional of Seoul to make no tangible effort to procure compensation from its Japanese counterpart on the victims' behalf. In response to this verdict, Seoul ratcheted up diplomatic pressure on Tokyo to its heretofore most assertive stance on the issue. As there was no commensurate change in Tokyo's position, however, this sparked a downward spiral in their inter-governmental relations that they have yet to fully recover from.

Further attesting to the problematic nature of the 2015 deal is that it replicates the dynamics of the normalisation treaty signed between the two governments in 1965. This treaty, which recast the matter of compensation for Korean civilian victims of Japan's colonial policies as a purely state-level enterprise, culminated in the waiving of the rights of the victims to claim compensation from Japan at any point in the future. Although the comfort women were not negotiated as part of this settlement, the treaty has stood as the major obstacle in their pursuit of redress. Evidently, history is now repeating itself. What the two governments attempted in December of 2015 — the year of the 50th anniversary of the treaty — was to solve an issue primarily concerning Korean civilian victims on their behalf. 

It can therefore be assumed that, in spite of this recent deal between Seoul and Tokyo, the comfort women issue is far from 'settled once and for all.' It is only a matter of time before the Korean Council, with the support of the wider comfort women movement, draws upon its tactical repertoire to render the issue diplomatically contentious once again. 

Indeed, the victims and their supporters have no intent of backing down until the Japanese Government acquiesces to their calls for state compensation. Thus, if Tokyo is serious about resolving the comfort women issue with Seoul, it had better redirect its diplomatic efforts and acquiesce to those that hold the key to a resolution: the victims' long-standing, politically savvy advocates.

This piece was written as part of the U.S.-Korea NextGen Scholars Program, an initiative of the CSIS Korea Chair and USC Dornsife Korean Studies Institute. The author wishes to acknowledge the support of the advisors and scholars in this program.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Melissa Wall.