South Korea announced Tuesday it will not seek to renegotiate the 2015 landmark deal with Japan on the “comfort women” issue but at the same time indirectly urged Japan to extend a fresh “voluntary, heart-felt apology” for the victims forced to work at Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
The announcement immediately drew strong protests from Tokyo. Under the 2015 deal, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already expressed “his most sincere apologies and remorse” to all the former comfort women and Japan provided ¥1 billion to South Korean fund for victims, although Tokyo has denied any legal responsibility for compensation.
On Tuesday, South Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Seoul plans to create its own fund worth ¥1 billion for former comfort women. Seoul will also discuss what to do with the ¥1 billion provided by the Japanese government, Kang said.
“It cannot be denied that the 2015 deal was an official agreement reached between the governments of each country, and our government will not demand renegotiation,” Kang said, according to the Yonhap news agency.
“We still expect Japan to accept the truth in accordance with universally accepted standards and keep making efforts to recover their dignity and heal the wounds in their minds,” she said.
What victims want is a fresh “voluntary and heart-felt apology,” Kang was also quoted as saying.
Later, Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters: “It’s totally unacceptable that South Korea demands Japan carry out more measures, even though the 2015 Japan-South Korea agreement confirmed a final and irreversible resolution.”
Kono also said that South Korea must stick with the 2015 agreement to further promote the bilateral ties among the two nations, as Tokyo and Seoul are key partners in coping with the North Korean threat.
Kono added that Japan will ask the South Korean government to clarify why it is setting aside its own fund and to give details of Tuesday’s talks between Seoul and Pyongyang. Seoul’s new policy on the deal came after President Moon Jae-in was inaugurated last May. After taking office, Moon ordered a task force re-examine the process that led to the agreement, saying the majority of the South Korean public did not approve of it.
In December, the task force under Kang said in a report that the previous government of Park Geun-hye failed to sufficiently consult former comfort women before agreeing to the deal. Moon also criticized the deal as seriously flawed.
Kan Kimura, a political science professor and Korean affairs expert at Kobe University, said Seoul’s latest decision appears to have been worked out “desperately” as the South Korean government tried unsuccessfully to impose any clear-cut requests on Japan.
“In a nutshell, they couldn’t really do anything,” Kan said, adding that Seoul, despite initial reports, ended up not announcing the unilateral return of the ¥ 1 billion yen provided by Tokyo under the 2015 deal.
Kang’s comment that Japan should “voluntarily” accept the facts of what happened in accordance with “universally accepted standards” essentially means Seoul failed to demand an outright apology from Tokyo, the professor said.
Seoul’s softer-than-expected rhetoric, Kan said, underlines its desire to minimize the danger of its ties with the United States being compromised as it deals with its fragile diplomacy with Washington and Pyongyang.
Amid soaring tensions on the Korean Peninsula, “Seoul’s biggest priority is to maintain a good relationship with the U.S.,” Kan said.
“Seoul knows Abe and Trump are on good terms, and that Abe may even have the biggest influence over Trump among world leaders. So it makes sense they didn’t want to antagonize Abe,” Kan said, adding that taking the high road will also help Seoul maintain its international reputation.
Despite its decision not to seek a renegotiation, Seoul’s latest announcement will still be taken as running counter to the “final and irreversible” nature of the 2015 pact, further intensifying a sense of “Korea fatigue” in the Japanese government and potentially doing harm to bilateral relations in the long run, the professor said.
“‘Give me a break’ is probably the sentiment of the Japanese government,” Kan said, adding that Tuesday’s development could have a negative impact on Abe’s decision over whether to attend the Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang.
The diplomatic dispute on comfort women has been a major strain on ties among Tokyo and Seoul for years.
Under the landmark deal announced by the foreign ministers of the two nations in 2015, Japan put ¥1 billion into a South Korean foundation to support Korean victims, while South Korea reportedly agreed to “make efforts” to remove a statue symbolizing comfort women from in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Prior to Seoul’s announcement on the comfort women accord, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reasserted Tokyo’s stance that it has “no intention of changing the deal even by a millimeter,” forestalling any possible calls from the South Korean government for renegotiation or any additional requests.
Noting the deal was hammered out after negotiation between foreign ministers and then confirmed by top leaders of the two nations as “final and irreversible,” Suga said Tokyo remains adamant that the deal should be “implemented steadily” and urged Seoul to act accordingly “as soon as possible.”