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Facing backlash, South Korea panel retreats on 'comfort women'

The report says the issue not resolved, putting ties with Japan at risk

SEOUL -- A South Korean government panel squarely blamed the previous administration Wednesday for what it sees as a deeply flawed 2015 agreement to resolve the issue of wartime "comfort women" with Japan, echoing the predominant public view critical of the accord.

The focus will now shift to what President Moon Jae-in does with the findings. The report could further strain bilateral relations at a time when cooperation is desperately needed to confront the North Korean nuclear threat.

Authored by a task force reporting directly to Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, the report blasted then-President Park Geun-hye for not adequately listening to the women in a rushed move to strike a deal.

Kang apologized in a news conference for "giving wounds of the heart to the victims, their families, civil society that supports them, and all other people because the agreement failed to sufficiently reflect a victim-oriented approach, which is the universal standard in resolving human rights issues."

Hailed as a landmark deal at the time, the accord, in which Tokyo recognized the Japanese military's involvement, was intended to settle the matter "finally and irreversibly."

The investigation, however, concluded that the dispute over the comfort women could not be "fundamentally resolved" without the support of the victims.

Park tied the broad bilateral relationship to progress on the comfort women issue, further worsening the situation, the report said. Her insistence on finalizing the deal by the end of 2015 was blamed for creating confusion in South Korea's diplomatic strategy on Japan.

The document also criticized the secrecy of the negotiations, which moved forward without informing the public of potentially unpalatable conditions, like a promise to make efforts toward removing a memorial to the women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, failed to have its positions on key issues reflected in the deal, the report said, relegating itself to a role subordinate to the Blue House.

It is extremely rare for a country to unilaterally review the negotiation process for an international agreement and to publish its findings. Yet the document did not make a recommendation as to what the government should do with the agreement.

Who's the target?

Moon, South Korea's first liberal leader in nine years, won the presidential election in May partly on the promise of renegotiating the comfort women deal. Despite having achieved little in terms of diplomacy or the economy, he maintains a roughly 70% approval rating more than seven months into his presidency. Reviewing the 2015 deal was widely viewed as part of his continuing assault on conservatives.

But the report toned down attacks on Japan. Kang previously said the document would not necessarily reflect South Korea's official stance. She said Wednesday that the government will consider the potential impact on bilateral relations as it mulls the next step. She had even visited Japan shortly before the report came out to explain Seoul's position to Tokyo.

Still, Japan is deeply irked by the reassessment. If South Korea "attempts based on this report to change an agreement which has already been implemented, the [bilateral] relationship will become unmanageable," Foreign Minister Taro Kono warned in a statement.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also told those close to him that "the agreement will not budge, not even by a millimeter."

"We will continue at every opportunity to persistently urge South Korea to uphold the agreement," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also told reporters Wednesday.

Potential fallout

Should Abe decide not to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea next February, Moon's plans for restoring "shuttle diplomacy," or the leaders taking turns to visit each other, could be derailed. It could also pour water on the 20th anniversary of a joint declaration of friendship coming up in October, which the countries consider a key opportunity to advance bilateral relations. Speculation is growing that Seoul will wait until after the games to announce its stance on the comfort women report.

Japan also wants to avoid a clash with the South, given North Korea's growing nuclear and missile threat. Such a rift would also benefit China, which wants to divide South Korea from Japan and the U.S. over the issue of missile defenses. Meeting with Kang on Dec. 19, Kono apparently spent three hours detailing risks associated with the comfort women issue.

Kang has said all options are on the table. But even Moon recognizes that scrapping an international agreement is difficult. A policy document released in July remained silent on the possibility of renegotiating the deal.

Still, Moon was the one who wanted the task force in the first place. The president has also repeatedly said that most South Koreans have a difficult time accepting the 2015 accord.

Moon cannot just accept the agreement as is, given his support base, a professor close to the administration said. Even if he decides not to renegotiate it outright, Moon could still demand that Japan agree to additional conditions.

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