HAMBURG, GERMANY – With the leaders of Japan and South Korea at odds over a 2015 agreement to resolve the “comfort women” issue but agreeing to build “future-oriented” relations, they are likely to use a dual-track approach to ensure the rift does not undermine cooperation in dealing with North Korea.
In his first meeting Friday with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said most South Koreans cannot accept the agreement struck between his ousted predecessor Park Geun-hye and Abe. But it is not known whether Moon sought to renegotiate it during the meeting, which took place on the fringes of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.
During his presidential campaign, the former human rights lawyer pledged to renegotiate the agreement about the Korean comfort women — Japan’s euphemism for the girls and women forced into its military wartime brothels during Japan’s 1910 to 1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
A Gallup Korea poll in February showed 70 percent of South Koreans want the government to renegotiate the accord, which was intended to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue.
But since taking office on May 10, Moon has refrained from mentioning renegotiation.
In an interview with The Washington Post last month, Moon said, “We should not block the advancement of … bilateral relations just because of this one issue.”
Some experts warn that if Moon calls for renegotiating the agreement, it could worsen the long-running dispute and hurt ties overall at a time when the two countries and the United States must coordinate even more closely to counter North Korea’s rising nuclear and missile threats.
China’s economic retaliation against South Korea over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, an advanced U.S. missile defense system, as well as Beijing’s apparent reluctance to impose tough sanctions on Pyongyang, have made it difficult for many South Koreans to see China as a reliable strategic partner.
In a June 26 meeting in Washington, Vice Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan affirmed that it was important for Tokyo and Seoul to implement the comfort women agreement.
“I think President Moon is trying to find a solution,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Hawaii-based think tank.
“Mr. Moon is no longer a private citizen, he is the president. He has put the national interest above that particular feeling, and thus he is trying to figure out how it is that you both satisfy the emotional needs of the Korean people and the national security needs of the country,” Glosserman said. “So he’s adopting a dual-track approach which puts history on one side and security on the other, because there is the far more pressing problem of North Korea to be dealt with.”
Glosserman was referring to Pyongyang’s test Tuesday of an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts estimate could reach Alaska. The launch of North Korea’s first ICBM marked a major step forward in the regime’s pursuit of a nuclear-tipped missile that can strike the U.S. mainland.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has said that at the start of the year, North Korea was estimated to have enough fissile material to make about 10 to 20 nuclear warheads, compared with 10 a year earlier.
“Many analysts assess that North Korea is probably able to build a ‘miniaturized’ warhead that can be delivered by short- and medium-range missiles” that could strike South Korea, Japan and potentially U.S. military bases on Guam in the Western Pacific, the institute said in its latest nuclear forces data.
Given the urgency of responding to the North Korean threat, Seoul may now be looking for ways to defuse the comfort women issue.
In what some analysts suspect is an attempt to calm public sentiment concerning the agreement — and possibly give the Moon administration time to discuss with Tokyo a compromise on its implementation — South Korea’s Foreign Ministry reportedly plans to launch a task force to review the process by which the deal was reached.
The task force is expected to look into how the agreement came to include the language “finally and irreversibly” — an expression some South Koreans find objectionable — as well as wording related to the removal of a statue in Seoul symbolizing the comfort women, the Yonhap news agency reported June 23.
Under the December 2015 agreement, Japan has disbursed ¥1 billion (about $9 million) to a South Korean fund providing support to the surviving women, and Abe expressed his “most sincere apologies and remorse” for the suffering they experienced.
South Korea, for its part, promised it “will strive to solve,” in consultation with civil society organizations, Japan’s objections to the comfort women statue in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
But the statue remains in place, and civic groups last December installed a similar statue in front of the Japanese Consulate in Busan, creating yet another source of friction.
Despite their differences over the issue, Japan and South Korea agreed on June 3 to retain the General Security of Military Information Agreement, a military intelligence-sharing pact the Park administration signed with Japan last November. And on Thursday, Abe, Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump vowed to ramp up pressure on Pyongyang.
“So far I see no evidence that the Moon administration’s view of the comfort women agreement will be an impediment to cooperation to curb North Korean nuclear and missile development programs,” said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank.
“South Korea’s dual-track approach to this issue does not inhibit such cooperation for the time being,” Snyder said. “Longer term, the main challenge is sustaining and deepening trilateral cooperation while continuing improvements in areas of Japan-South Korea bilateral relations where deeper cooperation is possible.”