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The rekindling of a row between Japan and South Korea over symbols of the “comfort women” could hinder efforts to strengthen security cooperation between Washington’s two key Asian allies, according to an American scholar versed in Tokyo-Seoul ties.
“Japan-South Korea tensions undermine U.S. interests because robust trilateral coordination is essential for effectively handling North Korea, or even China,” Celeste Arrington, an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, said in an interview.
Arrington was referring to renewed tensions over a statue in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan on Dec. 30. The statue, set up by a civic group, represents comfort women, Japan’s euphemism for women forced to serve in wartime brothels for Japanese forces.
In protest, Japan has recalled its ambassador to South Korea and suspended currency swap talks, saying the statue — and the South Korean government’s failure to stop it — run counter to a landmark 2015 agreement to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the protracted dispute.
Arrington was speaking ahead of a visit to South Korea and Japan by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis that the Pentagon said is aimed at underscoring the commitment of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to “enduring alliances” with the countries.
Mattis is also expected to affirm the importance of increased trilateral security cooperation in the face of China’s military buildup and assertive territorial claims in the East and South China seas, as well as North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
After visiting South Korea, Mattis is expected to meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada in Tokyo on Saturday.
The visit comes as South Korean opposition party members have stepped up criticism of the comfort women agreement and a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. The deals were promoted by President Park Geun-hye, who has been suspended from her duties after she was impeached by the National Assembly in December over a corruption scandal.
Similarly, China has banned imports of some South Korean products and taken other economic measures in apparent retaliation for Park’s decision to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. South Korean opposition parties are also questioning the planned installation of THAAD.
Arrington said efforts by Japan and South Korea to address comfort women and other issues related to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, as well as the General Security of Military Information Agreement, have signaled both countries’ commitment to strengthen trilateral security coordination.
“Because Park Geun-hye and the foreign policy initiatives she undertook are now so discredited, it’s going to be really hard for the South Korean government to convince the public that these are worthy foreign policy goals,” she said.
Arrington urged Japan and South Korea to ease tensions, and especially for Tokyo to refrain from taking actions that would further escalate the situation in South Korea. Progressive forces in the country who appear eager to make the comfort women agreement, GSOMIA and THAAD campaign issues in a presidential election later this year may attempt to take advantage of inflamed relations.
Moon Jae-in, the leading presidential hopeful from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, has called for renegotiation of the comfort women accord and questioned the November signing of GSOMIA. Meanwhile, the countries face an ongoing dispute over a pair of islets in the Sea of Japan — called Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan.
“I understand the Japanese government’s perspective on the comfort women issue,” Arrington said. “But whatever the Japanese government can do not to inflame those feelings, I think, will be helpful — at least not to give groups in South Korea an excuse to mobilize more support for criticizing Japan or erecting more statues.”
Under the agreement struck between the foreign ministers of the two countries, South Korea promised it “will strive to solve,” in consultation with civil society organizations, Japan’s objections to a statue symbolizing comfort women that stands in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
But that statue remains in place and activists supporting surviving comfort women have continued campaigning to install similar statues around the world, including in Busan and potentially even on the disputed islets.