Japan to face a tough negotiator in Moon
South Korea's new leader has taken hard line on 'comfort women,' island dispute
SEOUL -- Given Moon Jae-in's uncompromising stance on hot historical issues like wartime "comfort women," Japan is increasingly wary of dealing with a tough-minded South Korean president amid a challenging political landscape in Asia.
Tokyo is particularly concerned about how Moon approaches a 2015 deal signed by the two countries to "finally and irreversibly" resolve the comfort women issue. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eager to turn a new leaf and focus on the future of bilateral relations instead.
After the impeachment of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the end of last year, Moon signaled that the "comfort women" deal must be renegotiated. He argued that it was difficult to justify the agreement, and that Japan must acknowledge its legal responsibility for the suffering of the women and apologize. Moon had also visited a statue symbolizing those women, which Japan wants removed, and urged the public to remain interested in the issue.
Moon was a member of a public-private committee on wartime reparations formed in 2005 by then-President Roh Moo-hyun, for whom he served as chief of staff. The panel claimed that the Japanese state and military were involved in the recruitment of comfort women, and that Japan must be held legally responsible for the inhumane action. It also said that a 1965 agreement, which settled financial claims between the countries and their citizens, did not cover the comfort women issue.
The committee did say that the $300 million grant provided by Japan to South Korea as part of the 1965 deal broadly covered individual property rights, South Korea's state claims to Japan, as well as reparations for Korean forced laborers during World War II. But South Korea's supreme court ruled in 2012 that the former workers still could individually seek compensation from Japan, overturning the understanding between Tokyo and Seoul.
While running in the last presidential election in 2012, Moon issued a plan for "solving five main concerns regarding Japan." He pledged never to compromise in the dispute over islands called Dokdo by South Korea and Takeshima by Japan, as well as to hold the Japanese government legally responsible for the comfort women issue, and also to restrict Japanese companies that used forced Korean labor during World War II from bidding on South Korean projects. Moon also visited Takeshima last July.
Some Japanese officials also have concerns about the prospects of Moon questioning security cooperation amid rising tensions over North Korea's nuclear and missile development. Tokyo and Seoul signed a General Security of Military Information Agreement last year, which must be renewed annually. But Moon said during the campaign that he will re-evaluate whether to extend the agreement based on its effectiveness.
Abe and Moon will speak by phone as early as Thursday. The Japanese prime minister likely will call for a stronger security partnership between the countries, as well as for Moon to carry out the terms of the 2015 comfort women accord.