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South Korean President Moon Jae-in answers a reporter's question during his New Year's news conference at the Blue House in Seoul on Jan. 10.   © Reuters
International relations

Renewed 'comfort women' debate a blow to Tokyo-Seoul ties

North Korea issue could further strain ties if Moon turns more inward looking

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer | North Korea

SEOUL -- Relations between Japan and South Korea are cooling rapidly as South Korean President Moon Jae-in moves to appease domestic critics of a controversial 2015 deal.

If Japan provides a heartfelt apology to the victims, the women will forgive the country and the issue will be resolved completely, Moon said at a news conference on Wednesday.

The South Korean leader made clear that he will not scrap or ask to renegotiate the deal, which was intended to "finally and irreversibly" settle the comfort women issue, but he did not say whether the country will abide by its terms either.

Under the 2015 accord, Japan has provided 1 billion yen ($8.98 million at current rates) to a South Korean foundation to compensate the victims and their families. Thirty-six of the 47 surviving women at the time of the deal have either received or expressed an intention to receive compensation. Some have refused to take money from Japan.

Seoul on Tuesday announced it will match Tokyo's contribution, and that it will discuss with the Japanese government what to do with the latter's funds. A source in the South Korean president's office said Seoul's contribution will likely go to the women and families of deceased victims.

There is talk of using the Japanese contribution to instead build new museums or memorials for the women, which would likely be a more palatable option for the deal's opponents. It would also be less of a slight to Japan than returning the money outright.

South Korean media have reported that the South Korean contribution effectively nullifies the 2015 accord. Tokyo opposes the move and continues to urge Seoul to respect the original terms.

Focusing inward

Moon is significantly more concerned about domestic sentiment than the foreign policy implications when it comes to the comfort women issue, because he recognizes that the South Korean people picked him in hopes of change. He prides himself on being born of the candlelight protests that led to the impeachment of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye. His top priority is eradicating the accumulated ills from past conservative administrations, a key example being the 2015 accord. He currently commands a more than 70% approval rating.

Moon has ignored Japan's urging to make efforts toward removing a memorial for the women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. He also served shrimp caught off the disputed Dokdo islands, which Japan also claims and calls Takeshima, in a banquet for U.S. President Donald Trump.

Yet an official from the South Korean president's office insists that Seoul is taking a two-track approach on Tokyo, so that historical disputes remain separate from other aspects of bilateral ties. Moon on Wednesday said he will approach historical disputes separately from the creation of a forward-looking partnership with Japan.

Seoul's conflicting attitudes at home and abroad have only fueled distrust in Tokyo. "We have no intention of changing the agreement between Japan and South Korea, even by a millimeter," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remains hesitant to visit the South for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next month because he worries Moon could ramp up his rhetoric against Japan.

Shrinking common ground

But Japan wants to prevent bilateral ties from deteriorating completely. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono is scheduled to meet South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha on the sidelines of a Tuesday conference in Canada.

North Korea remains one of the countries' few common interests. Moon is pushing for both dialogue and pressure to convince the rogue state to abandon its nuclear weapons. But if Seoul gives in to Pyongyang and eases up on the regime, it could further drive a wedge into its ties with Tokyo.

South Korea imported $53.4 billion in materials and products from Japan between January and late December last year, according to its Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. The figure grew 17% on the year. Although the countries continue to grow more economically dependent on each other, political relations remain fraught.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama helped broker the 2015 comfort women accord behind the scenes. But Trump does not want to get too involved with the issue, concerned that alienating South Korea will directly impact U.S. national security. Washington was clearly displeased when Seoul announced last fall that it would provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea, a diplomatic source said.

Pyongyang is taking advantage of the growing rift. The Rodong Sinmun, a mouthpiece for the Workers' Party of Korea, on Wednesday stressed that all problems should be resolved by the Korean people themselves. It also said Abe's recent comments demonstrated his plans to militarize Japan.

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