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International relations

Tokyo and Seoul drift further as 'comfort women' foundation dies

Historical grievances haunt bilateral relations as 2015 agreement breaks down

Former South Korean "comfort women" attend an anti-Japan rally in March 2017. Many South Koreans think the 2015 agreement with Japan did not do enough for the surviving women.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korea's decision to dissolve a foundation created to assist wartime "comfort women" essentially guts the 2015 deal with Japan to settle the issue, as bilateral relations deteriorate further over another historical issue.

"If international promises cannot be kept, country-to-country relations cannot be established," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters in Tokyo after Seoul announced the decision on Nov. 21.

Abe urged South Korea to honor the 2015 agreement, which he signed with then-President Park Geun-hye despite public resistance in both countries. The deal was meant to "finally and irreversibly" resolve the comfort women issue.

Takeo Akiba, Japan's vice minister for foreign affairs, summoned South Korean Ambassador Lee Su-hoon to the Foreign Ministry, where he stated that Tokyo cannot accept the decision. But the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation was created through South Korean legislation, which means Japan cannot stop the country from disbanding it.

Seoul had informed Tokyo of its plans earlier, at which time Japan stressed that it would not scrap or renegotiate the comfort women agreement.

Under the 2015 deal, Japan provided 1 billion yen ($8.85 million at current rates) to the foundation for distribution to former comfort women and their families. More than 70% of the 47 surviving women at the time have received 100 million won ($88,400 at current rates) each.

"Many of the former comfort women recognize our efforts," Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono has said.

Yet the public debate in South Korea has been dominated by groups that opposed the deal from the start.

President Moon Jae-in has chipped away at the deal, pleasing his progressive political base. The majority of the foundation's directors resigned by the end of 2017, bringing operations to a standstill. The South Korean Foreign Ministry said the deal was a political agreement and not legally binding. The government even replaced the 1 billion yen provided by Japan with South Korean funds.

Moon advocates a "two-track" relationship with Japan, separating cooperation on national security from the countries' historical disputes such as the comfort women issue. But bilateral ties have deteriorated amid this approach.

Sailors of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force raise the MSDF's ensign, also known as the rising sun flag, before the start of a fleet review at Sagami Bay, southwest of Tokyo, in 2015. Sailors of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force raise the MSDF's ensign, also known as the rising sun flag, before the start of a fleet review at Sagami Bay, southwest of Tokyo, in 2015.   © Reuters

Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force skipped an international fleet review in the South last month because it was asked not to fly the "rising sun" flag. MSDF vessels are required by law to use the ensign, but many South Koreans view the flag as a symbol of wartime aggression.

The South Korean Supreme Court recently ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to pay South Koreans forced to work for the company during World War II, and the court is expected to issue a ruling for a similar case involving Mitsubishi Heavy Industries on Nov. 29.

The fate of the comfort women foundation could impact future decisions regarding wartime labor. The South Korean government plans to announce its response to that issue by the end of the year, and many expect a proposal for a foundation to assist the victims funded jointly by both governments and the companies involved.

But the de facto death of the comfort women deal has shown that foundation-based solutions do not always work. Depending on South Korea's response, Japan is even looking to request a bilateral dialogue under a provision for conflict resolution in their 1965 treaty to normalize relations.

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