January 15, 2016 | By Karl Friedhoff

Korea-Japan Agreement Here to Stay

Students hold portraits of deceased former South Korean "comfort women" during a weekly anti-Japan rally in front of Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea, December 30, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

When Korea and Japan announced that they had reached an agreement to finally resolve the ongoing dispute over comfort women, foreign ministers of both countries said the issue would be “finally and irreversibly resolved.” Initial praise, however, quickly gave way to concern over the ability of the deal to survive backlash from the Korean public. Those concerns, while understandable, are overblown. A review of public opinion surveys conducted in South Korea inspire confidence that this agreement will not be derailed by public opinion, even as protests continue to take place in Seoul. Yet, there are obvious pitfalls for both countries to avoid to ensure that the deal remains final and irreversible.

The backlash the deal elicited in South Korea was to be expected. Relations with Japan are always fraught with public anger, and protests in front of the Japanese embassy can be messy. Protestors cutting off fingers, self-immolations, and the mutilation of pheasants [Warning: Graphic Image] with hammers and knives make up some of the more astonishing acts.

The fact that the Park Geun-Hye administration arrived at a deal in which neither the 46 surviving comfort women nor the NGOs which work on their behalf were consulted led some to expect the worst. When several of the comfort women publicly repudiated the deal these fears were heightened. If public outrage could be harnessed, large scale rallies and an outpouring of anger would effectively render the agreement dead.

But there is conflicting polling data on where the South Korean public stands. Both Realmeter and Gallup Korea found majority opposition to the deal—51 percent and 54 percent, respectively. It should be noted, however, that this is significantly less opposition than might have been expected given the sensitivity of the deal.

A poll by TNS Korea, however, found that 53 percent supported the deal. The key difference is in the question wording. The TNS poll included the specifics of the agreement in the question itself, something that both Realmeter and Gallup Korea failed to do. The finding also helps illustrate what public opinion surveys in South Korea have found for quite some time—the voices that vilify Japan in South Korea are a vocal minority. The silent majority—cowed into silence because there is little worse than being deemed pro-Japanese—is in favor of a pragmatic, forward-looking relationship with Japan.

There is another reason why the comfort women agreement was unlikely to lead to larger-scale demonstrations. While the issue remained a focal point for the Park administration, the South Korean public has been largely apathetic. In polling conducted in South Korea by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies from 2011 to 2014, the comfort women issue was cited by less than 15 percent as the most significant stumbling block to improving Korea-Japan relations. This placed it as the least important issue by nearly 20 percentage points in every Asan survey conducted.

Further, a separate poll found that the South Korean public is evenly split on whether or not Japan accepted legal liability in the recent agreement. This has long been one of the core issues in resolving the comfort women issue, and the text of the agreement itself leaves legal responsibility open to interpretation. While an interpretation that legal responsibility was assumed is the first-best outcome, divided public opinion is second-best for the Park administration, further dampening the potential for the deal to unravel at the urging of public opinion.

All of these findings point to the conclusion that public anger about the deal is significantly less than what is being portrayed in media headlines both in South Korea and around the world. The public portrayed in the data is largely dispassionate on the issue.

For those that continue to oppose the deal—at least in terms of the survey data—there is good reason to believe that opposition may not be wholly based on the deal itself. Instead, attitudes are likely linked to the job approval ratings of President Park. Those 50 and older are the only age cohorts to approve of the president’s job performance. They are also the only cohorts that approve of the deal struck with Japan. Just the opposite is true for all cohorts under 50—majorities disapprove of both.

Taking this into account—and that her approval rating did not budge in the week following the announcement—President Park should feel very optimistic about the chances of shepherding this agreement into the medium-term. It will not be derailed by South Korean public opinion.

However, if both sides are truly interested in the long-term viability of this agreement there are steps that both must take to ensure its survival.

If Japan wants to resolve this issue, it must stick to the letter of the agreement. The agreement itself does not stipulate as a prerequisite that Korea remove the statue dedicated to comfort women that currently stands in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Insistence on this before other steps are taken would mark the deal as functionally dead: three-quarters of South Koreans oppose moving the statue—much higher than the 51 percent that oppose the deal itself. And that is the floor. If Japan demands its removal, South Korean public opposition will undoubtedly increase, leaving little wiggle room for President Park.

For South Korea, it is of utmost importance that it avoid shifting goalposts. With the inclusion of the “final and irreversible” language, and the seal of approval given by most in the international community, this could very well be the last chance to reach a resolution of any kind. Should interest groups or the opposition party succeed in derailing it, South Korea’s credibility as a good faith negotiating partner will suffer immensely. In such a scenario, it is unlikely that Japan would ever return to the negotiations and the chance to resolve the issue will be lost.

While the deal may not quite be the watershed that some have made it out to be, for better or worse, this deal is here to stay.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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