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International relations

Tokyo refuses call to do more on 'comfort women' issue

Japan sees South Korea as moving the goalposts, endangering landmark accord

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha speaks Tuesday during a briefing in Seoul regarding the country's 2015 agreement with Japan on the "comfort women" issue. (Pool photo)   © Reuters

SEOUL/TOKYO -- Japan rejected South Korea's call Tuesday for additional efforts to help wartime "comfort women," insisting that it will not do anything beyond what it has agreed to under a 2015 bilateral agreement that sought to put the issue to rest.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono

Seoul will not seek to renegotiate the deal, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said, as it represents a formal agreement between nations. But South Korea expects Japan to continue efforts to help the former comfort women, she said, noting that they wish for a sincere and voluntary apology.

In response, her Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, called the request "absolutely unacceptable," saying the 2015 agreement settled the issue "finally and irreversibly." The pact was reached by the administration of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, predecessor to current President Moon Jae-in.

"While the administration has changed," Kono responded Tuesday, "responsibly implementing" the pact remains a matter of "universal international principle." He lodged an official complaint with the South Korean Embassy soon after.

Money remains at issue

The dispute centers on the 1 billion yen ($8.84 million at current rates) Japan put into a South Korean foundation to compensate former comfort women and their descendants under the agreement. More than 70% of victims living at the time have claimed their compensation, the Japanese government says.

South Korea intends to replace that 1 billion yen with its own funds and discuss with Tokyo what to do with Japan's contribution, Kang said Tuesday. Some former comfort women have urged Seoul to refund the money as a sign of protest.

But a refund "would amount to scrapping the agreement," a Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo said. "We don't plan to even discuss" how the funds will be handled, the official said. Some in South Korea have suggested putting it in a trust if Japan does not come to the table.

Simmering tensions

Whatever happens with the money, South Korea shows little sign of simply complying fully with the 2015 deal, despite Kang's assurance that no renegotiation was in order. A South Korean government panel found last month that victims' opinions were not adequately taken into account when the agreement was drawn up, and Moon called the deal seriously flawed at the end of 2017, saying it did not resolve the issue.

South Korea failed to remove a statue commemorating comfort women from in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul after agreeing to "solve" that issue "in an appropriate manner." To Japan's chagrin, a similar statue went up in front of the consulate in Busan soon after. Seoul also supported a bid last year to add documents related to comfort women to UNESCO's Memory of the World Register. Japan sees this as a violation of South Korea's promise not to criticize the country over the comfort women issue in the international community.

Some in Japan's government have voiced frustration with what they see as South Korea moving the goalposts on the issue, and they suspect the Moon administration, prompted by its liberal base, could further increase its demands in the future. This suspicion deepens the determination of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to give no ground on the 2015 deal.

Fresh disagreement on the issue could throw a wrench into Japan-South Korea relations just as concern builds in Tokyo about Seoul's growing preference for dialogue with North Korea. Abe is leaning toward declining an invitation to next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea, despite the potential for top-level talks between the countries.

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