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Moon in a bind over 'comfort women' as Japan threatens rupture

Abe will likely decline an invitation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in faces a tough choice.   © Yonhap via AP

SEOUL -- After dismissing a 2015 agreement over wartime "comfort women" as deeply flawed, South Korean President Moon Jae-in finds himself facing the tough balancing act of keeping his domestic base pleased while not jeopardizing relations with Japan.

Moon has garnered support by slamming South Korea's past administration and promising policies in sync with public opinion. But this strategy seems to have backfired.

Following Moon's announcement, Japanese government sources said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is now leaning toward skipping the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February.

Moon issued a statement Thursday that the 2015 accord with Japan, signed under then-President Park Geun-hye, cannot resolve the comfort women issue. He decried the deal as a political arrangement that disregarded the victims and the South Korean public. This jibed with his stance during the presidential campaign, when he called for renegotiating the deal.

But perhaps to show that he is no longer a candidate but the head of state, Moon changed tone later in the statement. He expressed a desire for true friendship with Japan. He stressed that historical disputes should not disrupt broader bilateral relations, such as in national security and the economy. Still, his claim that the agreement was seriously flawed could further strain Japan-South Korea ties.

Moon has told relevant agencies to formulate plans for his next step. But no matter what he decides, the president will be walking a difficult path.

The most dangerous game

The government will choose how to respond to the report in January, right before the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The Yonhap News Agency has written of South Korea likely taking steps toward effectively renegotiating the agreement. But many believe that scrapping or altering the accord will not prove easy.

Out of consideration for supporters, Moon could demand that Japan agree to additional terms. But this could harm the existing dialogue between Moon and Abe, as well as cooperation between the countries on North Korea's nuclear and missile development.

But if Moon chooses to prioritize relations with Japan and keep the accord as is, he will face a heavy backlash from left-leaning civic groups and unions in his base. Moon's government will face its first test in local elections this June. "It will be difficult for him to ignore his supporters' wishes," a former South Korean official said.

Begging off

Given recent developments, Abe is looking to decline the South Korean invitation to the Olympics, according to government sources.

"A trip to South Korea has become very difficult," said an official, who explained that "nothing good will come out of visiting the country right now."

That the games coincide with Diet meetings on the fiscal 2018 budget, and that other major leaders have not confirmed their attendance, likely also factored into the prime minister's position.

When South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha was in Japan on Dec. 19, Abe expressed his hope for the games' success but did not say whether he would go, citing such factors as the Diet schedule.

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