South Korea leader Moon calls 2015 ‘comfort women’ deal ‘undeniable,’ but says Japan must still offer apology

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI, Reuters, Bloomberg

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday that although it is “undeniable” that the 2015 deal with Japan on “comfort women” forced to work in Japanese wartime military brothels is official, Tokyo should still offer a “heartfelt” apology.

“The fact that there was an official agreement between Korea and Japan cannot be denied. It is also important to deal with Korea’s relationship with Japan carefully,” Moon said during a televised news conference.

The president said how to handle the money offered by Japan will be decided in consultations with the Japanese government and other relevant parties.

Under the deal, Japan provided ¥1 billion ($8.8 million) to a South Korean foundation set up to support Korean victims.

“If the money can be used for good causes in a way to help resolve the comfort women issue, and if Japan, the victims and civic groups agree to the idea, I think it would be desirable as well,” he said, according to the Yonhap news agency. “We will have more time to consult with Japan, victims and civic groups on that matter.”

Moon also said South Korea will try to separate historical issues from efforts to develop future-oriented cooperation with Tokyo. But he also called for a “heartfelt apology” from Japan to the victims.

“Japan should accept the truth, apologize with a sincere heart and take (the comfort women issue) as a lesson and work with the international community in such a way that (such things) could not occur again,” he said.

South Korea said Tuesday that it will not seek to renegotiate the deal — struck two years ago under the government of then-President Park Geun-hye to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the long-standing issue — though it wants Japan to do more to settle it.

Moon said his government would continue taking measures to heal the psychological wounds of the victims so as to restore their honor and dignity.

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga rejected Moon’s call for Tokyo to do more to settle the comfort women issue, saying Tokyo “cannot accept at all” such a demand by South Korea.

Given that both countries had agreed to settle the issue “finally and irreversibly” in December 2015, Suga said the two countries are supposed to steadily implement that deal.

On the North Korean nuclear issue, Moon said he would be willing to sit down with the nuclear-armed North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, as the international community welcomed an agreement for Pyongyang to send its athletes to the Winter Olympics in the South.

The games in Pyeongchang next month have long been overshadowed by geopolitical tensions, with the North launching missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland in recent months and detonating by far its most powerful nuclear device to date.

But Pyongyang — which boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul — on Tuesday agreed to send athletes and officials to the event as North and South held their first formal talks for two years at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

“It is only the beginning,” Moon said during his annual New Year’s news conference Wednesday. “Yesterday was the first step and I think we had a good start.

“Bringing North Korea to talks for denuclearization is the next step we must take,” he said.

He was willing to hold a summit “at any time,” he said, as long as it was “under the right conditions.”

“But it cannot be a meeting for meeting’s sake,” he said. “To hold a summit, the right conditions must be created and certain outcomes must be guaranteed.”

Moon’s sentiment echoed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has welcomed the talks, but voiced caution about the detente.

“Talks for the sake of talks are meaningless,” Abe reiterated.

Pyongyang, however, has said it would not discuss its nuclear weapons with Seoul because they were only aimed at the United States, not its “brethren” in South Korea, nor Russia or China, showing that a diplomatic breakthrough remained far off.

Despite the frictions over nuclear weapons, the two sides agreed Tuesday to hold a military dialogue and resolve problems through negotiations. They plan to hold another round of talks, though haven’t yet agreed on the date.

At the same time, Kim had another message for the U.S. on Tuesday. A commentary in the state-run Minju Joson said “it’ll be wise for the U.S. to face reality” and accept North Korea as a nuclear state.

Moon has long supported engagement with the North to bring it to the negotiating table over banned weapons programs that have alarmed the U.S. and the global community, and have seen Pyongyang subjected to multiple sets of United Nations sanctions.

But the U.S. has said the regime must stop nuclear tests for negotiations with Washington to take place.

“We have no difference in opinion with the U.S.,” Moon insisted, saying they shared an understanding about security, were working together and were both threatened by the North’s nuclear weapons and missiles.

But he stressed that the aim of sanctions was to bring North Korea to talks, and “stronger sanctions and pressures could further heighten tensions and lead to accidental armed conflicts.”

“But thankfully, North Korea came to dialogue before tensions were heightened further,” he said.

Seoul had no plans to ease its own unilateral measures at present, Moon said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has a much closer relationship with Abe than he does with Moon, and has claimed credit for the North-South talks himself.

“If I weren’t involved, they wouldn’t be talking about the Olympics right now, they’d be doing no talking,” Trump said over the weekend, ahead of the meeting.

Moon thanked him for his efforts Wednesday.

“I think President Trump’s role in the realization of inter-Korean talks was very big.” he said. “I would like to express my gratitude.”

The U.S. cautiously welcomed the talks, but warned that the North’s attendance at the games should not undermine international efforts to isolate Kim’s regime.

Trump and Moon had already agreed “to continue the campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ on North Korea toward the goal of complete and verifiable denuclearization,” the State Department said.

China — the North’s major diplomatic backer and trade partner — and Russia, with which it also has strong ties, both welcomed the North-South talks.

Suga, Japan’s top government spokesman, said Wednesday that Tokyo “highly valued” Pyongyang’s expressed willingness to participate in the Olympics.

“But there is no change in our policy of exerting the maximum level of pressure on North Korea until they change their policy, in close cooperation with the U.S., South Korea, and also involving China and Russia,” he added.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said Pyongyang’s agreement to take part in Pyeongchang was a “great step forward in the Olympic spirit.”