South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke by phone Thursday for the first time since Moon took office and agreed to closely cooperate on dealing with North Korea and on building a “future-oriented” relationship, a senior Japanese official said.
Moon did not express a negative view of the 2015 “comfort women” agreement, the official told reporters. Instead, he only told Abe that there are “cautious opinions” circulating in public about the accord, which was signed to put the issue of comfort women to rest “finally and irreversibly,” the official said.
Comfort women is Japan’s euphemism for women forced to work in Japan’s military’s brothels before and during the war.
Moon also said the two countries should “wisely resolve history-related issues,” the official added.
According to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, however, Moon used stronger rhetoric in describing public opinion in his country.
“President Moon noted the reality was that most of his people could not accept the agreement over the sexual slavery issue,” Moon’s chief press secretary, Yoon Young-chan, was quoted as saying.
During his election campaign, Moon pledged to renegotiate the deal with Japan.
During their 25-minute conversation, Abe told Moon that he would like to “properly manage the bilateral relationship” in light of the accord.
Abe also said he’d like to host a trilateral summit in Tokyo with his Chinese and South Korean peers as soon as possible, and hold a bilateral meeting with Moon as well. Moon agreed, the official said.
Moon’s attitude during the call appeared to significantly relieve senior bureaucrats in Japan who were concerned he would take a tougher stance and be reluctant to cooperate with Japan and the United States in dealing with North Korea’s provocations.
A high-ranking Japanese official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Moon’s willingness to meet Abe marks “a clear difference” from the attitude of former South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Park had long refused to meet Abe because of issues related to Japan’s brutal colonization of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
In the 2015 comfort women agreement, Abe issued an apology over the issue and arranged for ¥1 billion to be deposited into a South Korean foundation for the dwindling survivors.
Many South Koreans, however, are critical of the deal, saying that Japan has yet to admit its legal responsibility for compensation and that the agreement was made without consulting the former comfort women, who mostly back the agreement.