(From the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs)
By Karl Friedhoff
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. Read more