‘Comfort women’ deal hits Seoul-Tokyo ties

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/14 18:53:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha announced her government's new policy on the 2015 "comfort women" agreement, Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun reported on Tuesday. She said South Korea would not seek to renegotiate the deal, but hoped Japan would make a "voluntary, heartfelt apology" for the victims. The next day, South Korean President Moon Jae-in also called for a "heartfelt apology" from Japan at a New Year's press conference. Japan said it can "by no means" accept the requests.

South Korea's new stance seems abrupt but has actually been pushed by Moon who is known to take strong positions on the issue. He was in the opposition when he protested the agreement signed between South Korea and Japan in December, 2015. During South Korean presidential election in May 2017, Moon repeatedly said he would renegotiate the agreement with Japan. And on May 11, after he became president, he said there remained sharp public criticism of the accord during his first call with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Moon has not overlooked the issue since his government came to power in May. A report on the "comfort women" issue by a government task force in December and the recent policies show that the controversial subject has not been jettisoned in spite of the twists in ties between the neighbors.

In fact, Moon seems to be trying to strike a balance between responding to public opinion and diplomacy with Japan. He did not renegotiate with Japan as declared during the presidential election or revoke the deal.

Seoul has carefully timed its new stance. It came a month before the opening of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games and when a high-level meeting between North and South Korea was being held in the truce village of Panmunjom.

A meeting between the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea will probably be held in Tokyo in April in which Moon looks forward to improving ties with the two neighbors. South Korea chose to declare its stance on the controversial issue after the report by the government task force and to keep considerable time for improving bilateral ties with Japan. If South Korea rakes up the issue after the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games, it will affect the tripartite meeting which has been delayed several times.

By declaring the new stance when the Panmunjom meeting was being held, Moon intended to show Abe that Seoul had the initiative over the peninsula issue, prompting Tokyo to make compromises at the diplomatic level.

Although the agreement has not been revoked this time, the Moon government's denial of some clauses of the agreement shows the failure of Abe's foreign policy. The Abe government signed the agreement with South Korea because it hoped the "comfort women" issue which has always been a sticking point in diplomacy with South Korea would be "finally and irreversibly" resolved.

However, it just showed the Abe government's immaturity. It is obviously impossible to address the controversial issue with the help of money and a public deal between two governments. The "comfort women" issue cannot be erased from public memory just because of an agreement. The Abe government has to deal with historical issues objectively and apologize for past behavior.

How South Korea's new stance will affect ties is hard to guess, but Japan has already shown dissatisfaction. According to Sankei Shimbun, Abe will not attend the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games as he has to be present at the Japanese parliament. His absence from such an important sports event may hit bilateral relations.

In the meantime, the North Korean nuclear issue has been the common ground to improve relations between Japan and South Korea. With tensions on the peninsula easing, bilateral relations between Japan and South Korea are not expected to improve soon.

The author is a PhD candidate at the graduate school of sociology, Toyo University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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