VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Tuesday rejected a South Korean request that the Japanese government take additional measures over the issue of Korean women who were forced into Japan’s wartime military brothels.
Japan “can by no means accept” such a request, apparently including a fresh apology by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the “comfort women,” Kono told his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, on the sidelines of a 20-nation ministerial meeting on North Korea in Vancouver, British Columbia, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
Kono was quoted by the ministry as telling Kang that Seoul must steadily implement the 2015 landmark bilateral agreement to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the protracted row over the former comfort women, an issue related to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
Kang invited Abe to visit South Korea for February’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, and Kono responded that the Japanese government will consider the offer by taking into account Diet schedules and other matters involving the prime minister, it said.
It was the first time that Kono and Kang have met since South Korea on Jan. 9 unveiled its new policy on the bilateral accord, struck between the Abe government and the administration of President Moon Jae-in’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye.
The rift over the accord clouds relations between the two U.S. allies in the face of the rising threat posed by North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Under the new policy, South Korea will not seek to renegotiate the agreement with Japan, but wants Tokyo to do more for former comfort women.
On Jan. 10, Moon said Japan should “apologize with a sincere heart” over the issue and pledge that such cases will never happen again. Kang stressed what the victims really want is a “voluntary and genuine apology.”
During the 45-minute talks Tuesday, Kono and Kang reaffirmed bilateral cooperation in maximizing pressure on North Korea to compel it to take specific action toward denuclearization, according to the ministry.
They agreed to ensure close coordination bilaterally and trilaterally with the United States in dealing with North Korea, including future dialogue between the two Koreas.
The ministers affirmed coordination in advancing overall bilateral relations in a “future-oriented” fashion, while appropriately managing “difficult issues” such as the one involving the former comfort women.
Kono demanded that the South Korean government take appropriate action against moves to erect in front of a Japanese diplomatic establishment in the country a statue symbolizing forced Korean laborers during Japan’s colonial rule.
The Moon administration reignited tension with Japan in late December. A South Korean government-appointed panel said in a report that the Park administration had failed to reflect the comfort women’s demands when negotiating the deal.
In line with the 2015 agreement, Japan provided ¥1 billion ($8.9 million) to a South Korean foundation set up to support former comfort women. Abe expressed “his most sincere apologies and remorse” to the victims.
Of the 47 former comfort women who were still alive when the agreement was reached, 36 or their next of kin have received or indicated their intent to receive money from the foundation.
South Korea, for its part, said that it “will strive to solve” the issue of a statue of a girl symbolizing comfort women in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul that Japan wants relocated. The statue still stands there.
Seoul also said it will refrain from accusing or criticizing Tokyo over the comfort women issue in the international community, including at the United Nations.