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Japan urges South Korea to stick to 'comfort women' deal

Seoul's foreign minister visiting Tokyo to balance closer ties with Beijing

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and her Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, meet in Tokyo on Dec. 19.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan on Tuesday pressed South Korea to abide by their 2015 agreement on wartime "comfort women," as Seoul's new foreign minister met with her Japanese counterpart during her first official visit to Tokyo.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in's government has taken issue with the agreement, making it a key topic for discussion alongside North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Tuesday's talks between South Korea's Kang Kyung-wha and Japan's Taro Kono came on the heels of Moon's visit to China last week, during which he sought closer cooperation with Beijing by emphasizing Japanese wartime aggression and his preference for dialogue with North Korea. Moon's approach raised eyebrows in Tokyo.

Kang's two-day visit to Tokyo, through Wednesday, is seen as Seoul's way of signaling it has not shifted all its weight toward China.

Kang and Kono confirmed that their countries will maintain a united front against the North's nuclear threat. But that unity was overshadowed by the comfort women deal and other issues related to Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Reversal ahead?

The 2015 agreement Japan reached with Moon's impeached predecessor, Park Geun-hye, was aimed at mending bilateral ties that had been severely strained by friction over history and territory.

Under the terms, Japan recognized its military's "involvement" in running wartime brothels in occupied territories, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressing regret to the victims. A foundation was also established to support the women. In exchange, South Korea declared the issue resolved "finally and irreversibly."

This was supposed to allow the neighbors to focus on the future, but the agreement triggered heavy opposition in South Korea from the outset.

A South Korean Foreign Ministry task force of experts is currently reviewing the deal. Based on the panel's findings -- to be published on Dec. 27 -- Moon's government will decide whether to keep, modify or scrap the arrangement.

Kang was expected to brief Kono about the review process, with Kono reiterating Japan's longstanding position that the accord should be faithfully implemented.

The subject of reciprocal visits by Moon and Abe was also on the agenda, along with the prospect of a long-delayed trilateral summit with China. Japan is to host the next such meeting and wants to hold it in January; the last summit was held in Seoul in 2015.

If the trilateral meeting proves difficult to arrange, Seoul is prepared to go ahead with a summit involving just Abe and Moon in Japan. Seoul would then want Abe to visit South Korea for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next February.


Nikkei staff writer Mitsuru Obe contributed to this article.

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