SEOUL – South Korea announced Tuesday that a wartime ‘comfort woman,’ who has spoken widely of her suffering due to being forced to work in a wartime Japanese military brothel, had been invited to attend a state banquet for U.S. President Donald Trump.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office made the announcement before his talks in Seoul with Trump, who arrived earlier in the day from Tokyo as part of his five-nation Asian tour.
Inviting the 88-year-old Korean woman, Lee Yong-soo, to the banquet may complicate South Korea’s relations with Japan, which could impact their joint efforts with the United States to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
Japan and South Korea reached an agreement aimed at “finally and irreversibly” settling the comfort women issue in 2015.
Another potential flashpoint came on the dinner menu itself. “Dokdo shrimp,” which come from waters around a pair of islets at the center of a territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea. The South Korea-controlled, Japan-claimed islets are known as Takeshima in Japan.
Japanese government officials are said to be puzzled over South Korea’s decision to raise such thorny political issues during Trump’s visit, at a time when ties between Tokyo and Seoul have been improving.
In Tokyo, Japan’s top government spokesman expressed frustration over South Korea’s banquet arrangements.
“We will continue to take every opportunity to resolutely appeal to South Korea to steadily implement the agreement,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a routine news conference.
“We have explained our position to South Korea through diplomatic channels,” Suga said, while noting that the agreement has been praised by the international community.
The spokesman had a stronger response to the choice of using the shrimp saying, “I wonder about that.”
“At a time when stronger coordination between Japan, the United States and South Korea is required to deal with the North Korea issue, and when President Trump has chosen Japan and South Korea as the first stops on his trip, there is a need to avoid making moves that could negatively affect the close coordination between (the three countries),” he said.
Trump is the first sitting U.S. leader in 25 years to come to Seoul in the format of a state visit.
Lee is one of about 70 guests invited to the banquet, and is set to be seated at the same table as White House Communications Director Hope Hicks and others, according to Moon’s office.
In addition to visiting foreign countries to talk about her grim experience, Lee has criticized the Japanese government and South Korea’s previous administration for striking the deal on the issue, a protracted sticking point in bilateral relations.
The dispute over comfort women — a euphemism used to refer to the women and girls recruited mostly from Asian countries to provide sex to Japanese soldiers before and during the war — has been one of the major issues that have frayed Tokyo’s ties with Seoul.
Lee and others have slammed the 2015 agreement as not reflecting the feelings of former comfort women.
Japan has asked Moon’s administration to uphold the accord, under which Tokyo provided money to a fund to assist the women and Seoul promised it would strive to settle the issue in consultation with civil society organizations at home.