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Politics

Seoul to give 'comfort women' deal a second look

Moon administration won't push for a full rewrite

A comfort woman statue faces the Japanese Embassy site in Seoul. (Photo by Andrew Salmon)

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in's government intends to review a 2015 agreement with Japan on wartime "comfort women," prioritizing how the deal was reached over seeking an outright renegotiation as it aims to work with Tokyo based on the findings.

The bargain was struck under since-ousted President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But many South Koreans find it difficult to accept, according to the current government. Public dissatisfaction has been voiced in the past through such means as a statue installed outside the Japanese Embassy here.

A task force to be set up under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will likely tackle such questions as whether ex-comfort women's views were adequately listened to, how the talks became rushed toward the end, and how certain language came to be included. The statements in question include ones that the agreement would "finally and irreversibly" settle the issue, and on possibly relocating the statue in Seoul.

Moon pledged as a presidential candidate to renegotiate the agreement. And in an interview Thursday, he told Reuters that "Japan does not make full efforts to resolve issues of history between our two countries, including the comfort women issue." It would help to repair relations "if Japan were to show its strong resolve in looking back on its past history and sending a message that such actions will never happen again," he said.

But Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has advocated a holistic approach to relations with Tokyo, and Seoul has adopted a strategy of separating historical disputes from cooperation elsewhere. While the move to review the comfort women deal clearly shows the government's intent to repudiate the Park administration's work and take a harder line on wartime history, it also appears aimed at broadening options for dealing with Japan.

Tokyo has refrained from openly calling for Seoul to fulfill its end of the bargain in the Moon era and has come to stress the importance of dialogue. But it has bristled at the president's harsh statements on historical issues to American media, and Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has protested through diplomatic channels that such statements are not in line with Tokyo's stance. Bilateral relations "would be impeded if such strong statements were repeated at summit talks in early July," a ministry official said.

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