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Japan on edge as South Korea reviews 'comfort women' deal

Abe's attendance at Pyeongchang Winter Olympics may rest on outcome

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono (left) with South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- South Korea's attempt to revisit a 2015 accord with Japan on wartime "comfort women" is rekindling tensions between the two countries as Tokyo objects to the move as backtracking on their shared goal of achieving a final resolution.

The "comfort women" accord loomed large Tuesday in talks between South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono. South Korean President Moon Jae-in's government convened a special task force to review the agreement after coming to power earlier this year, and Kang's first official visit to Japan aims in part to update Tokyo on that process, according to a Japanese government source.

Seoul plans to release the result of its reassessment at the end of the month. Given the uncertainty, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not responded to Seoul's invitation to the Pyeongchang Olympics to be held in February 2018.

As part of the 2015 deal, Abe's government agreed to recognize the Japanese military's involvement in operating wartime "comfort women" brothels in parts of Asia occupied during World War II, and to provide funding to a foundation supporting victims of that system. In exchange, the administration led by Moon's predecessor Park Geun-hye agreed to move toward resolving the "comfort women" issue "finally and irreversibly."

Tokyo remains adamant this agreement be implemented strictly and fully. But while the Moon administration has not explicitly called for revising the deal, it has made clear that the pact as it stands is "emotionally unacceptable to the vast majority of the South Korean public."

In the course of the ministers' roughly three-hour meeting, Kono called on South Korea to stick to the deal. But Kang skirted the subject, saying only that the two sides must work together to develop mature, future-oriented relations.

The accord "is an agreement between governments," Kono told reporters after the talks. "I believe [South Korea] will do its part and firmly implement" the deal, he said. But there is concern in Tokyo that Moon, reliant on the support of South Korea's political left, will demand additional steps by Japan. The government in Seoul has already taken actions that Japan believes violate the deal, including backing a bid to register documents related to "comfort women" with UNESCO's Memory of the World register.

Long shadows

The outcome of South Korea's review of the formerly agreed-to deal could determine whether Japan accepts South Korea's invitation for Abe to visit in February. Kono told Kang that Tokyo would "consider" the request "in light of the legislative calendar and other circumstances," according to Japanese sources. The Moon government's report at the end of December seems set to play a decisive role.

Abe himself gave a similar response when asked by Kang in a 20-minute meeting later Tuesday to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February, though the prime minister also extended his wishes for the games' success. Moon is slated to visit Tokyo early next year for a trilateral summit with Japan and China, though he could also make a unilateral visit if that meeting is postponed until February or later.

Some in South Korea expect the Moon government to delay acting on the findings of the review team until after the games begin, to encourage Abe to attend. Kang told reporters at Tokyo's Haneda Airport on Tuesday that the revaluation team's conclusions will not directly alter the government's position. Translating those conclusions into policy will take a little time, she told South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo in an interview published Tuesday.

The two sides found more common ground in discussion of North Korea. The ministers agreed their countries would maintain close cooperation among themselves and with the U.S. to put strong pressure on the North. But Tokyo remains frustrated with Seoul's focus on achieving dialogue with Pyongyang, and Kono warned the Moon administration to be cautious in extending humanitarian aid to the rogue state.


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